When we think of Switzerland, we often think of muesli. But just how did its pioneering inventor Dr Bircher-Benner capture the culinary zeitgeist of the early 20th Century?

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.

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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 shouldn’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.

But Bircher-Benner’s research wasn’t so far-fetched. It became such a game changer that by 1904 he opened Lebendige Kraft, a chalet-style health sanatorium in the foothills of the Zürichberg, the city’s east-facing mountain. Switzerland’s reputation was such that thousands had begun to flock to health clinics in the Alps for the tangible healing properties of the sun, air and diet – but Bircher-Benner was also a shrewd businessman. Instead of opening on a sun-drenched Alpine ridge, he opened his sanatorium close to Zurich’s five-star Dolder Grand Hotel to lure in its affluent guests.  

“In my eyes, his success was due to the easy rules he preached – raw food, early rise, early to bed, the virtues of fresh mountain air,” Wolff said. “But there was also a growing demand for ascetic self-control in the middle classes and the well-to-do at that time. And that’s why many flocked to the Zauber Berge, or the ‘Magic Mountain’ as it became known.”

Further fuelling excitement over such sanatoria was the rise of lebensreform. A social movement born in Germany, it advocated a pre-Summer of Love utopia of freedom, hippy ideals and vegetarianism. Yet not everyone was impressed. The writer Thomas Mann, who stayed in Bircher-Benner’s clinic for four weeks, later penning The Magic Mountain while recuperating in Davos, went so far as to call the sanatorium a hygienic prison.

Bircher-Benner's success was due to the easy rules he preached – raw food, early rise, early to bed, the virtues of fresh mountain air

Seen from the Zürichberg today, there is little of the original clinic left. Walk down Keltenstrasse and you’ll come to a training and conference centre for Zurich Financial Services, once part of the sanatorium. By turning on to Köllikerstrasse, you’ll pass three chalet-style houses that once housed paying guests. The splashy Dolder Grand Hotel is still as imposing as ever, but the area has become better known as the global headquarters of FIFA.

While the idea of the health sanatorium in Switzerland is more or less history, the country remains a proud muesli belt, populated by middle-class, health-conscious people who commonly snack on cereal at their office desks rather than a sandwich. Yet the golden days are not completely forgotten: one of the original luxury sanatoria still stands the test of time as a wellness hotel.

A two hours’ drive from Zurich, crossing southeast into the canton of Graubünden, the art nouveau Hotel Schatzalp stands on the plateau of another fabled magic mountain, the Schiahorn. Like the Zürichberg, patients here surrendered to monastic routines of lying on a sun lounger for six hours to absorb Vitamin D, while eating vast quantities of muesli. And they would do so for months.

Sanatorium life was like something from the Grand Hotel Budapest film

“The routine of sanatorium life was like something from the Grand Hotel Budapest film,” said hotel director Mark Linder, showing me around the historical property that dates to 1900. “People would travel eight hours by horse and cart from Landquart to take advantage of the air, altitude and spring water. They would often arrive lost, and hopefully get found. That was its purpose.”

Walking the hotel’s nostalgia-filled corridors, it is easy to see what Linder means. The glamorous bar and TV lounge once housed a medical wing and operating theatre, while the murals in the belle époque dining room capture scenarios from the Swiss lowlands so patients wouldn’t feel homesick when eating yet another bowl of raw fruit. But times don’t change that much: still today, the restaurant acts as a wistful backdrop for those who come to eat well, enjoy the fresh air and get fit on their own terms. 

Would Bircher-Benner approve? Wolff and Linder think he would. When it comes to the vital business of food and leisure in Switzerland, the doctor’s philosophy continues to influence the country’s national psyche. The Swiss all but invented healthy living, and embracing the great outdoors is so ingrained in their culture that mountain air, plentiful sunshine and a good diet is practically a human right.

So next time you have a bowl of Bircher muesli, consider this: a nation’s soul and more than 100 years of history are at the tip of your spoon.

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