The Swiss-born physician Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner was an early advocate of the raw food trend. Born in 1867, Bircher-Benner studied medicine at the University of Zurich before opening his own clinic in the city. During its first year, however, the doctor himself came down with jaundice—a stroke of ill luck but one from which an unlikely health food was born: muesli.
Bircher-Benner claimed to have successfully treated his jaundice through a diet that consisted largely of apples. But rather than keeping the doctor away, the apple diet led him to a discovery that would change breakfast for millions. He began to experiment with raw foods— oats, fruit, nuts—and in 1897 he opened a sanatorium called Vital Force to promote his discoveries. At its heart lay the dish he had developed. Known today as Bircher Muesli, to distinguish it from myriad other variations, Bircher-Benner’s creation was a thick dish of apples, oats and nuts served with cream or condensed milk.
A tablespoon of rolled oats is soaked in three tablespoons of water overnight. The soaked oats are then mixed with a tablespoon of nuts, a tablespoon of cream and a drizzle of honey. Grated into this mixture is a large apple including skin, core and pips, and to stop it going brown the juice of half a lemon is also added.
Bircher-Benner was inspired by the simple meals eaten by shepherds in the surrounding Alps where he would hike with his wife. He called his concoction “d’Spys”, meaning simply “the dish” in Swiss German. Its more common name, muesli, was derived from the word mues, meaning puree or mash.
So sure was he of the health-giving properties of his dish that Bircher-Benner served it before every meal at his sanatorium, where his patients followed a strict regimen. They would exercise, go to bed early, abstain from coffee, chocolate, alcohol and tobacco and take cold showers. It wasn’t for everyone: the novelist Thomas Mann, who visited the sanatorium, described it as a "health jail".
But Bircher-Benner’s nutrition ideas caught on. He advocated eating at least 50 per cent raw foods, and his sisters, who worked with him at the sanatorium, developed other recipes incorporating raw food. Although Bircher-Benner had many critics who had yet to see food’s connection to health, his ideas struck a nerve with society at large, and he had to expand his clinic to accommodate those wanting to visit.
His championing of raw foods was prescient too: it wasn’t until the 1930s that vitamins were discovered in fruit and vegetables, offering a scientific basis for Bircher-Benner’s theories.
Muesli itself took slightly longer to catch on with a wider audience; it was only in the 1960s that it was taken up by the health-food and vegetarian communities. The fresh muesli created by Bircher-Benner was joined by a dry version that could be easily stored for weeks or even months at a time, and was sold bagged or boxed.
Over the years Bircher-Benner’s recipe has been tweaked, different dried fruits have been added, other grains and nuts substituted and treats such as chocolate also introduced.
Today, Muesli—and its near cousin granola (a toasted blend of nuts, oats, seeds and honey or syrup)—has seen a resurgence as a new generation embracing the raw food movement discovers the benefits of the dish and redevelops it as an artisanal alternative to mass- produced breakfast cereals. Bircher-Benner would have approved.