Bircher Muesli is generally known as a Swiss breakfast dish made up of oats that have been soaked overnight in milk or fruit juice and combined with fruit and nuts.
The man it’s named after, Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner, ran a sanatorium – a health retreat – overlooking Lake Zurich in the Swiss mountains. In 1904 Bircher-Benner designed ‘muesli’ as part of a highly ordered regime of diet and exercise for residents. It was served as a raw food starter for each meal.
In Swiss-German ‘mues’ means ‘mash’ while ‘li’ means ‘little’; the concoction was simply ‘little mash’. ‘ It is the only Swiss-German word that has made it into every major language.
So in fact, Bircher-Benner didn’t just invent Bircher Muesli, but the dish became the starting-point for all muesli, one of the world’s most popular breakfast foods.
Muesli brands have long borrowed the heritage of Alpine air and rosy-cheeked Swissfolk in their imagery, however what we know as muesli was not quite what Bircher-Benner had in mind.
He was a medical doctor who became one of the world’s first advocates of eating mainly raw food, particularly fruit and vegetables. He’d suffered from jaundice and attributed his recovery to a diet of raw apples. This was quite a contrast to the dominant health assumptions of the time, which emphasised high-protein and particularly high-meat diets.
According to scholar Dr. Eberhand Wolff at the University of Zurich, the most important ingredient in Bircher-Benner’s muesli was the raw grated apple. A serving consisted of one large grated apple and just one tablespoon of oats.
As Wolff says in this article in the Karger Gazette, “Among his arguments, one was prominent: raw food contained a high level of energy taken from solar light.” Once food was cooked its solar energy was diluted, Bircher-Benner believed.
This particular argument for raw food may not have passed the scientific critique of the 20th Century, but the idea of consuming more fresh fruit and vegetables, along with other holistic principles such as taking fresh, unpolluted air and regular exercise, are in line with fundamentals of healthy living today. (And raw foodism is still around as a dietary approach).
Over in the United States, John Harvey Kellogg’s sanatorium had been advocating similar philosophies (except for raw food – Kellogg and his businessman brother invented the pre-cooked, packaged cornflake). Both the Bircher-Benner and Kellogg retreats focused on instilling strict regimes and getting patients to become very self-disciplined.
Both were motivated primarily by an evangelical desire to improve human health; commercial success was secondary. And yet their legacies include two of the most enduring, lucrative food products of the last 100 years: cornflakes and muesli.
How to make Bircher Muesli
The original Bircher Muesli recipe can be found here on food.com.
Many contemporary cookery writers have embraced Bircher muesli.
- Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has a flexible whatever-you-have-in-the-pantry approach to Swiss Muesli (which my friend Charlotte follows and highly recommends)
- Amanda Laird offers this elegant brunch-style pear Bircher muesli with honeyed ricotta and raspberries
Where to eat Bircher Muesli in Auckland
It has to be much-buzz-about Little Bird Organics cafe in Kingsland.
385 New North Rd, Kingsland. Ph 09 550 7377
Everything they offer is vegan, not cooked above 46 degrees (Bircher-Benner would approve) and the food, presentation and branding is quite exceptional. There is a cafe and (un)bakery on-site.