Ever been tempted to compare the taste of cheddar cheeses from Wisconsin and California, or sample some feta cheese made with sheep's milk?

The newly opened Cheese Central in Downtown Lodi stocks upscale cheeses from across the globe and features a knowledgeable staff, ready to inform customers about each product they offer.

But, the store isn't just for the lactose tolerant. Cheese Central also features a Delectable Pantry, a collection of high-quality ingredients like blood orange marmalade, grape leaves and roasted macadamia nuts in wild honey. Cheese Central also offers fondue kits and raclette grills for rent. In the back lies a culinary classroom that will be home to demonstrations and tastings in the coming weeks and months. The store aims to educate consumers about cheeses and help them find their favorite styles. And, the location will add to Downtown's growing food and wine community, said owner Cindy Della Monica.

"I wanted to be here because the farmers' market is right in front of the location," said Monica. "Having the tasting rooms on the block is huge, too."

Upon entering the brightly lit store, framed pictures of French cottages hang on the walls. Milky chunks of tangy feta cheese rest next to water crackers for customers to spread and sample. Several workers clad in vests and ties slice and wrap portions of cheese as they attend to customers. The store carries about 100 varieties of cheese; most are sold in chunks weighing one-third of a pound and range from $4 to $15.

An advocate of Downtown Lodi said she is pleased with what the store brings to the community.

"It not only complements the tasting rooms, but is a unique experience itself that will bring more foot traffic to Downtown," said Jaime Watts, executive director of the Downtown Lodi Business Partnership.

Monica envisions Cheese Central being a hub for foodies looking to wow dinner party guests or grab a small treat for their picnic at Lodi Lake. The former chef de cuisine at Woodbridge Winery and partner at Bella Mozzarella Deli said employees at the 1,100-square-foot store take pride in educating customers about their choices. Like wine, cheese is a complex concoction, Monica said. Each variety has unique textures, flavors and aromas.

In front of the assorted cheeses in the refrigerated cases are yellow cards listing the vital information of each product. Its name, place of origin, type of milk used, flavors, pairing ideas and uses are all listed on the card. If you want more detailed information, the employees are eager to help. The background behind each cheese is a large part of the food's appeal, Monica said.

"I love the stories," Monica said. "Like why Morbier has lines in it or how Epoisses is believed to be Napolean's favorite."

Morbier is a semi-firm French cheese made from cow's milk. Its defining features are its powerful aroma and a blue line running through its middle. While today's cheesemakers make the line more for decoration, it was once a natural by-product of the cheese's production. Historically, during the Morbier-making process, the fresh curds were sprinkled with vegetable ash to keep a rind from forming overnight and prevent insects from feeding on the cheese. New curds would be laid on the layer of ash the following morning to finish the wheel. The line of ash created the distinctive mark.

Besides cheese, samples of other treats are consistently available. Local olive oils Coldani and Bozzano can be sampled with fresh bread from The Dancing Fox Bakery & Winery. Pre-packaged bottles of the local oils are available on shelves, but the store also offers empty 5- and 12-ounce bottles for customers to fill with their choice of either.

"If you are cooking something small and don't need the big bottle, this gives you the choice to buy what you need," Monica said. "It's all about portion control."

The sausage and meat case at Cheese Central also features variety. Italian sausages like Mortadella and salamis like Secchi are available next to pre-packaged variety packs that range from $4 to $8. The selection enables customers to develop their palates without breaking their budget, Monica said.

The store, which officially opened Monday, will be vital in continuing to build the community's food culture, said Susan Tipton, chair of Lodi's Slow Food chapter.

"It's awesome," Tipton said of the store. "It's a really good fit for Lodi and can help to support local artisan producers. It's a welcome addition."

Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at jordang@lodinews.com.


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