Muesli of one form or another is a breakfast staple for many – especially those who lean towards the healthy option (whatever that means.) It is, of course, as I am sure you will agree, a pleasant way to enjoy your morning oats, and is especially useful if hot porridge is not your style, or it is a hot summer morning.
The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that oats are the usual base, in its definition of the dish as “a mixture of cereals (esp. rolled oats), fresh or dried fruit, nuts, etc., typically eaten with milk at breakfast.” It is always satisfying when the OED agrees with one’s own concept of a dish, is it not? So, imagine my surprise, confusion, and ultimate delight when I followed the etymological trail to try to uncover the connection with oats. The explanation given in the OED is that it is “originally a German regional (Swiss) diminutive formation < Mues , regional variant of German Mus stew, stewed fruit (see moose n.1). So – no mention of oats, only of fruit. And moose? What has muesli to do with the North American elk? Nothing, thankfully, as it turns out. The noun also means, or used to mean, “pottage; stewed vegetables; a dish of this” – which those of you with an interest in medieval and early modern food will recognize in the name of the dish apple-moyse or moise. It would be so easy to wander off right now on an apple-moyse tangent, but I am confused enough, so we will enjoy that particular delight tomorrow. I immediately wondered if moose/moyse/moise was related to mousse, but it appears this is not the case, the name of this light frothy dish being related to the French name for a mass of champagne bubbles.
So, several etymological byways later, where is the oat connection? The first supporting quotation for the OED’s entry on muesli specifically references the form we know as birchermuesli:
1926: “M. O. Bircher-Benner & M. E. Bircher Fruit Dishes & Raw Vegetables iv. 29 This dish..is popularly known as ‘Birchermüesli’.”
The author of the book is Maximilian Bircher-Benner, an influential Swiss physician and nutritionist who created the dish (around the end of the nineteenth century) for the use of patients of his sanitorium in Zurich, and luckily for us, his book contains the original recipe.
RAW FRUIT PORRIDGE (Bircher Muesli)
The recipe given is the portion for one person.
1. Apple Muesli.
1. Apples. Two or three small apples or one large one. Clean them by rubbing with a dry cloth. Do not take away the skin, core, or pips.
2. Nuts. Walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds – one tablespoonful.
3. Rolled Oats.* A level tablespoonful previously soaked in 3 tablespoonfuls of water for 12 hours.
4. Lemon Juice. The juice of half a lemon**
5. Top milk (T.T) and honey or sweet condensed milk (Nestlé’s) One tablespoonful.
First mix condensed milk (or top milk and honey) and juice of lemon with soaked rolled oats. Then grate the apples including the skin, core, and pips vigorously into the mixture on a two-way grater, and whilst doing so, stir continually. In this way the apple pulp is covered by the mixture and thus is prevented from getting brown in contact with the air. It looks white and appetizing. The dish should be prepared immediately before being put on the table. The grated nuts or almonds (1 tablespoonful) which are sprinkled over the dish increase the protein content and fat. The dish is served fresh, before anything else, and is not intended as a dessert. The fact that it is cold is never harmful as long as the muesli is well chewed and thus sufficiently warmed in the mouth. For those of a nervous disposition it may be warmed, but not above 95o F, as its nutritive value would be impaired.
This dish is especially suitable as a wholesome breakfast and supper for children from the age of two, for sick people with digestive disorders and for healthy people who wish to remain healthy.
I there, in that original recipe, we have the explanation of the etymology – the dish contains as much or more apple as it does oats.