What’s a good cheese for beginners?
I’m happy you’re starting your cheese journey. There’s a fairly widely available cheese these days from France called Comte that fits your parameters—not too strong and definitely not bland. You might also look for a cheddar that says "aged" rather than "sharp." And, one of my very favorite cheeses in the world is a goat cheese called Humboldt Fog. It may not be a starter cheese, but if you’re open to eating goat cheese, then that’s a great place to start.
What’s your favorite smoked cheese?
There are a couple of lightly smoked Italian cheeses I like—Scamorza and a sheep’s milk cheese from Sardinia called Pecorino Fiore Sardo. From Spain, I like a sheep’s milk cheese called Idiazabal (say that three times!), and from the U.S. I like a smoked chevre made by a small dairy in Oregon called River’s Edge. On a larger-scale, I’m always happy to eat a little smoked gouda or the smoked cheddar from Grafton Village Cheese Company in Vermont is really nice—not too smoky, just enough.
What would you put on a cheese tray in winter?
In general, I tend to go for the mountain and blue cheeses at that time of year. There’s an absolutely AMAZING cheese made in Wisconsin called Rush Creek Reserve. It’s so creamy you have to eat it with a spoon. That’s similar to a cheese from France called Vacherin Mont d’Or. Both are excellent. Some of the Swiss cheeses coming over here now are great—Heublumen, Scharfe Maxx (I know—strange words) are particularly good, and you can never go wrong with an aged English-style cheddar (Cabot Clothbound is one of the best) and definitely a blue cheese. Stilton is THE winter blue cheese (get the one made by Colston-Bassett) or go local and find a blue cheese near you.