Twenty-five years ago, histrionic cooks debarred Anne Somerset from the kitchen.
Nowadays, Elizabeth I stands between her and her saucepans.

When I was a child, the kitchen was virtually forbidden territory. My parents employed two cooks: in London, a German lady called Leni, who produced excellent food, but who was also quick to take offence and prone to prolonged fits of sulking; in the country, a Spaniard named Celtso. He too was a good cook, but highly volatile, being apt to fly into passionate rages at the least provocation. Both cooks jealously guarded their own domains; so I grew up to be inordinately fond of food, but ignorant of culinary processes.

In due course Celtso gave notice and left for Australia. His place was taken by Mrs Byrd, an utterly delightful lady who inaugurated a new regime in the kitchen. I was allowed to watch as she worked and, though I suspect that at times she must have regretted her failure to exclude me (I was forever sampling her food), in this way I picked up the rudiments of cooking.

In the meantime Leni had also left and had been succeeded by Luis, a wonderful Spanish chef and a most good-humoured man. When I came to live in London after leaving school I must confess that the delicious food served by Luis acted as a powerful inducement not to leave the parental home. Friends who came to dinner became accustomed to eating food that was not necessarily elaborate, but cooked to perfection: fish croquettes, whose crisply fried coating belied their melting interior; escalope of salmon lightly covered with a herby hollandaise; thinly beaten-out fillet of veal with matchstick potatoes; irresistible bean soup, or boiled chicken in no way reminiscent of the nursery.

Having married in my early thirties, I moved to Baron’s court. I could tell that friends who had become accustomed to Luis’s cooking were despondent that they would no longer have access to it, but I flattered myself that I could easily dispel their gloom. Like a eunuch surrounding himself with pornography, I had amassed over the years a respectable collection of cookery books. I was eager to experiment.

Inevitably, when I sought to translate theory into practice, there were disasters. A Bearnaise sauce I had wanted to serve with rare beef refused to thicken, leaving me in a state of red-faced agitation. The herb crust on a rack of lamb emerged from the oven scorched beyond recognition. I could not have managed without Matthew, my husband, who intervened in times of crisis and performed an essential role - not always uncomplainingly - of clearing up much of the mess I left in my wake. Gradually I became more realistic when planning menus, avoiding dishes that required too much last-minute attention, and trying to have at least one course ready in advance. I also learned that even if a dish failed to turn out exactly as intended, it was unwise to be too apologetic: guest who had not been alerted frequently failed to realise that anything was amiss.

One reason why things were apt to go wrong was that I rarely allowed enough time. I was in the process of finishing a biography of Queen Elizabeth I, and a combination of inexperience, optimism and the pressures of a deadline frequently led me to delude myself that I could easily rustle up dinner for ten in less than an hour.

When things in the kitchen were at their most chaotic, it was consoling to know that the problems I faced were nothing compared to those encountered by sixteenth-century courtiers who had offered hospitality to Queen Elizabeth and a vast entourage during her annual progress through her kingdom. In those days it was not easy to feed so sizeable an influx, not least because Elizabeth tended to be vague about her exact date of arrival. Hosts who had reserved large amounts of perishable provisions often had to cancel their orders when she failed to materialise, only to have a mad scramble to stock up afresh when it became clear that she was finally on her way. The quantities involved could be enormous: in 1578, for example, Elizabeth and her court spent three days at Lord North’s house, Kirtling, in the course of which they consumed 67 sheep, 32 geese, 273 mallards and young ducks, 26 dozen quails, four stags, 18 bucks, 2,522 eggs, a barrel of anchovies, two horse-loads of oysters and 400 red herrings.

Fortunately my guests are less demanding than Queen Elizabeth.