Bircher muesli

Muesli: the world-famous Swiss breakfast classic

It is hard to imagine a breakfast table or Sunday brunch in Switzerland without the ubiquitous muesli. But this Swiss speciality is now also a well-established staple on breakfast tables elsewhere around the world. And yet barely anyone knows its origins. So let's take a trip back in time and meet Swiss doctor Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, who discovered the famous Swiss superfood over 100 years ago.

To make Dr Bircher-Benner's recipe for muesli, simply soak one tablespoon of oat flakes in three tablespoons of water for 12 hours, mix in one tablespoon of sweetened condensed milk and the juice of half a lemon. Then grate one large apple, including the skin and core, and mix all the ingredients. Sprinkle with one tablespoon of chopped nuts, and voilà!

A modern interpretation of muesli © Dani Rendina

The beginnings of the 'apple diet meal'

Muesli was originally known as the health-giving 'Apfeldiätspeise' (German for 'apple diet meal'). It was developed around 1900 by Swiss doctor Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner (1867–1939) and was served as an easily digestible dinner in his 'Lebendige Kraft' ('living strength') sanatorium in the hills above Lake Zurich.

Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner
Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, the developer of the original muesli


It was part of his raw food diet, which he used to treat his own jaundice as well as stomach problems of his patients, who included celebrities such as Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. He was convinced that cooked and processed foods were unhealthy for the human body. 

Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft
Sanatorium Lebendige Kraft

The apple diet meal introduced his guests to a wholefood diet with fresh fruit. This was all the more important because the consumption of raw, unprocessed plant-based food had fallen into disrepute at the end of the 19th century and was even avoided. Fruit was almost exclusively used to make wine and schnapps. People with a sensitive stomach avoided fresh fruit entirely, for fear of infection, though Bircher-Benner maintained that they needed it more than anyone. In bourgeois society, meat was considered the most important source of energy – not fruit or vegetables, which were regarded as containing too little nutritional value.
Bircher-Benner is said to have taken inspiration for his recipe during a hike in the Alps, when a dairymaid had served him the dish. Alpine shepherds had apparently eaten muesli for hundreds of years. 
Bircher-Benner thus revived an old custom, using the four ingredients of fruit, nuts, milk and oat flakes – a healthy combination that has been passed down through the ages. This was often served for dinner, especially in areas with an abundance of fruit. However, the ingredients of the original muesli were not pre-chopped and blended in the kitchen. 

'Lebendige Kraft' sanatorium
The kitchen of the 'Lebendige Kraft' sanatorium, where the original muesli was first prepared

The spelling of muesli

At this point we require a short explanation of the term 'muesli' and where it comes from. The word Müesli in German is the diminutive form of the word Mues in the Swiss dialect, i.e. Mus in standard German, which means purée. The focus in the original recipe was on the freshly grated apples, and not, as we might think, on the oats soaked in water. So it was very similar to an apple purée. In Swiss German the word is spelt 'Müesli' which is of great importance to the Swiss people. Otherwise – without the 'e' in the middle – it would be confused with the word 'Müsli', the Swiss German word for 'little mouse'.

A popular source of energy 

From the 1940s, Swiss families often had muesli for their evening meal. It was also frequently served in public institutions such as care homes and the Swiss Armed Forces. As it grew in popularity, a plethora of new recipes emerged. The usual oat flakes were replaced by factory-produced cereal mixtures, and as the risk of tuberculosis subsided, yoghurt, milk or cream were often used instead of condensed milk. Originally considered a simple meal, today it is appreciated for its variety – countless variations now exist, including anything from chocolate to coconut flakes or other fruits. 
But even today muesli is still considered a functional food, i.e. a food that is enriched with additional ingredients and is said to have positive health effects.  

Bircher Muesli
Traditional bircher muesli

Original recipe:
•    1 tablespoon oat flakes, soaked in 3 tablespoons of water overnight 
•    1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk 
•    Juice of half a lemon
•    2–3 small or 1 large apple with skin and core
•    1 tablespoon chopped nuts