Shattzalp Hotel in Davos, Alpine valley breakfast recipe of Bircher muesli gives Switzerland its mojo
Bern,August14:One early July morning, in a high Alpine valley above rolling pastures, a group of hikers gathered for breakfast at the historical Schatzalp Hotel in Davos, Switzerland’s easternmost resort. The sky was pallid grey, as were the clouds on the horizon, but the colour on the breakfast-goers cheeks was a healthy rose-pink.
One by one, they filled their dishes from the buffet, smiling contentedly as they took their time heaping spoonfuls of grated apple, cinnamon, rolled oats, seeds, nuts and dollops of yoghurt into the bowls. Eating it was proper work, but later, half a dozen of them went back for seconds. And so did I.
On the face of it, the scene doesn’t look like much, but this perfect marriage of morning custom and cereal is the very reason Switzerland changed the way the world eats breakfast. Bircher muesli – a hosanna to healthy living – is the invention that gave Switzerland its mojo. And still today its influence can’t be underestimated.
Bircher muesli is the invention that gave Switzerland its mojo
To learn more, I contacted Dr Eberhard Wolff from the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the University of Zurich. “First of all, muesli was not a breakfast idea,” said Wolff, who co-curated an exhibition at the Swiss National Museum on the country’s golden age as a health paradise. “Bircher muesli was intended as a starter to every meal, like bread and butter is today. Then, for a long time it became a Schweizer Znacht, a Swiss supper at night. But breakfast? Never.”
Tell plenty of Swiss this today and they’ll counter with a quizzical look. Many have only the vaguest knowledge of muesli’s roots. The older generation may picture its inventor, Dr Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, as a charismatic Doctor Doolittle-like character strolling the forests above Lake Zurich. But the younger generation are unlikely to know more.
Which is to say the backstory needs some unpacking. It begins around 1900 with the Swiss physician’s crusade to combat the ill effects of tuberculosis through improved diet. Far from being a nutritionist, Bircher-Benner first conceived the idea while studying medicine at the University of Zurich, experimenting with the effects raw food had on the body, and later using himself as a lab rat after falling ill with jaundice. The conclusion? His recovery was proof-of-concept for the health benefits of raw apple, nuts and oats mixed with water, lemon juice and condensed milk. A bowl of this Apfeldiätspeise (literally ‘Apple Diet Meal’, as Bircher museli was then known) will stay with you for the day, he reasoned, and probably for the rest of your life, too.
Around this time, everyone from a fledgling Nestlé in the Swiss town of Vevey to English tour operator Thomas Cook began propagating the idea of Switzerland as a paragon of healthy living. And no one cast this spell better than Swiss author Johanna Spyri. When her character Heidi falls ill, the mountains and alpine herbs are the only possible cure for her homesickness. And when Clara Sesemann, her wheelchair-bound friend, follows Heidi back to the mountains, she is able to walk again.