Paolo Tullio's top spots for pastry perfection
I must have been 12 or 13 the year my father decided that instead of flying to Italy for the summer holidays that we'd go by car. He had this idea that he could fill the boot with all the Italian goodies that weren't available here for the return journey. By this I mean foodstuffs - air-cured sausages, prosciutto, cheeses and lots of wine.
On the way down through France we were on the nationales, because the motorways hadn't yet been built. The old nationales were a great way to see France, as they went through all the towns and villages. We stopped for a night in Saumur, a very picturesque walled mediaeval town, and before we set off again the following morning we found a patisserie very near the hotel.
The smells inside were transfixing; fresh baguettes and an extraordinary array of cakes filled the display units. It was an Aladdin's cave of pastry wonders and I fell under its charms instantly. As I remember, we walked away with eggs Benedict for breakfast and cakes for lunch. And ever since then I've been a huge fan of high-class patisserie, not just in France, but in Italy too.
Naples and Sicily are the places for the treats. Anyone who hasn't yet tasted Neapolitan cannoli stuffed with exquisite crème pâtissière has a treat in store.
The Austrians have realised that cakes and coffee go well together, so kaffee und kuchen (their words for the pairing) dominates afternoons in elaborately decorated coffee houses, much as tea and cucumber sandwiches once did here.
Today, cakes are increasingly being made by people, not machines, just as they once were. We went through a peculiar patch when a home-made cake was considered a lesser confection to one that came out of a factory, but in the past decade or so that's being reversed as we've come to realise that artisan foods are nearly always a product of passion, and as such have more to offer than the soulless industrial version.
Years of filming The Restaurant with Louise Lennox - the Pastry Princess - means that I've been spoiled when it comes to exquisite pastry creations. But having high standards is no bad thing. All around the country there are coffee shops and bakeries where you can sit of an afternoon and enjoy excellent cakes. With the help of friends and family, I've put together a list that means you'll never be far from a good cake.
If you're in or around Dublin, a useful name to remember is Avoca. There are a few and they can be found both inside and outside of the city limits. They also serve hot food, but if all you want is a piece of cake and a coffee, you won't go far wrong in an Avoca where the coffee comes from 3FE and the cakes are homemade.
My son's personal favourite in Dublin is Hansel and Gretel (pictured) which is located in Clare Street, just off Merrion Square. Here the coffee is consistently well made and the cakes should not be experienced by people hoping to lose weight - they are simply too good. There are good breads to be had, as well as Danish pastries, pain au chocolat, croissants and fruit tarts.
Down at the Grand Canal Basin there's a good news story. Twelve years ago Natalia left Russia with her daughter speaking no English and settled in Dublin. Now both she and her daughter speak perfect English and she's built up a good business selling beautiful cakes. You can give them a try in Café Bar H, near the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, where there's a wide selection of Natalia's cakes.
Down in the second capital there's a winner by common acclaim, and that's Cork Coffee Roasters Café, where not only is the coffee good (as its name might suggest) but the cakes are mouth-wateringly good as well. You can find it at number 2, Bridge Street.
With my daughter Isabella and her husband Simon now ensconced in Kerry, I can bring you news from Cahirciveen, where Le Petit Delice serves the best breads, cakes, pies and tarts for miles around. French ownership brings loads of Gallic style, so if you're driving the Ring of Kerry, mark this spot as a place to refresh yourself.
Head northwards and you'll come to Limerick, where in Little Catherine Street you'll find Bean-A-Ti, purveyors of homemade breads and cakes. Both the coffee and the cakes get consistently well reviewed, some even saying that it's the best bakery in Munster. Certainly it's one of the best that Limerick has to offer.
Over to Galway and I'd suggest a visit to Griffin's of Shop Street. Plain and fancy cakes, some good breads - try the sandwiches made from the 'anaconda' bread (a five-foot long loaf) - and there's a range of gluten-free as well.
In the midlands, in Mullingar in particular, you can try Deborah's Cakes, which has built up a good name for itself in the past few years. Apart from the cakes and breads, there are savoury pies and some very fancy wedding cakes, birthday cakes and beautifully decorated cupcakes.
Northwards to Dundalk and you come to Keelan's Home Bakery, which is on Jocelyn Street and has been serving Dundalk for more than 60 years. It's a family business and it has a huge range of cakes, pies and breads - 65 different offerings - so choosing isn't easy. If you want unusual fare, here's the place to come for spelt bread, fruit braics and tarts, as well as pancakes, scones, soda farls, potato bread and sausage rolls too.
Coffee and cakes may not be the nutritionist's dream, but as an occasional treat it's hard to beat. And now that there's a good choice of artisan bakeries, I find I have a whole new interest in the sweet end of the gourmet's fare.
Whispers from the Gastronomicon
Tapas Trail is a new way to have a guided tour of Dublin City, where each tour will visit three tapas restaurants and get to sample some amazing tapas while enjoying a delicious glass of wine in each venue. The tour is a relaxed way of seeing the city. Some well-known spots in the capital are discovered, but the tours always include some areas that groups may not know.
The tapas restaurants are all kept secret until you arrive on their doorstep, so they arrange a meeting point where the group will get to meet with their guide and the tour will depart from there. The guides are locals with knowledge of the city's history. This tour is about discovering Dublin through food, meeting new people and getting to know the restaurants and their staff. If you want to know more, check out tapastrail.com