S.F. Rising: Flax-Oat Bread from Vital Vittles

Categories: Bread
Vital_Vittles.jpg
A weekly survey of bread in San Francisco ― the baked and the steamed, the artisan and the novelty.

Flax Seed-Oat Bread
Source: Vital Vittles, available at grocery stores around the city.
Price: $4-5, depending on the store
Toast-appropriateness: 10/10

Long before Acme's Steve Sullivan learned how to knead, long before Glenn Mitchell started up his Grace Baking stand in Rockridge Market Hall, Joe and Kass Schwin used a legal settlement from a car accident to buy a stone mill for grinding whole-wheat flour. Flour soon led to bread. This being the Tassajara Bread Book era, of course it was dense and brown, 100 percent whole grain and nutritionally superior. Soon their bread was organic, kosher, and dairy-free, too. Times changed, crusty French and Italian breads rose ascendant, and Vital Vittles kept baking the same way it had always done, counterculture bread for counterculture peoples.

Times changed again.

Now this 34-year-old bakery has gone mainstream and keeps growing. That's because many of us in the Bay Area, switching back to whole-grain bread after years of artisanal loaves, have realized: Vital Vittles bread is really effing good.

All throughout the 1970s ― all right, 1980s and '90s, too ― I loathed whole-wheat bread for its musty, grassy, muddy flavor and the way it seemed to turn to grit in the mouth. In 2005, when the USDA revised its the food pyramid and started recommending whole-grain foods, I decided to try using whole-wheat bread for my inviolable, never-changing breakfast of toast, butter, and coffee. I bought loaf after loaf of mediocre bread, covering the toast in double-thick layers of jam and honey, until I got to the most dated-looking brand on Rainbow's shelves.

I have never looked further since.

I grew up in a bread-baking family, and so during my four years in Seattle, I tried to reproduce the texture and flavor of Vital Vittles bread myself. I couldn't produce anything nearly has high, cakey, and tender. Nor could I replicate the nuttiness of the flavor, which comes from the freshness of the flour ― the bakery still grinds winter red wheat berries on its stone mill every day. I even hate flax seeds (the way they get stuck in the teeth, the mucilaginous film that spreads across the tongue when you crack one with your molars), and I still eat this bread, morning after morning. Sometimes, just to switch it up, I'll buy a loaf of nine-grain bread. But that's as far as I'm straying.

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