ANY visit to a livestock market would not be complete without having some refreshments or a meal.

For many farmers, a trip to the livestock market often begins early and could mean long hours there to carry out their business, whether it is to sell or buy and the associated unloading and loading of animals.

That could mean having a hot breakfast, a tea or coffee or a dinner.

One person who has been central to providing the food at Clogher Valley Livestock Sales for almost 30 years is Jean Maguire.

After developing a catering business at the mart over so many decades, she has now decided it is time to hang up her iconic black and white apron. The mart canteen will continue to be served by a new caterer.

Jean explained that she began her career in catering at Greenmount Lodge, between Clogher and Fintona, and when the opportunity arose to take on a new contract at Clogher livestock Mart, she became involved in the planning stages of the restaurant.

In addition, Jean and her team of helpers also had the contract to run the mart canteen at Enniskillen for many years.

“I was there [Clogher Mart canteen] when the kitchen was planned and I had a say where everything should be placed, and it worked so well. We had just sawdust on the floor when I began serving food there."

Jean’s team generally opened the canteen on sale days and at Clogher Mart the weekly cattle sale on Saturdays was her main working day, which began at 6am, as the food is prepared for a range of meals including breakfasts and dinners.

Her first customers will be the mart staff who will call in for tea and toast followed by farmers coming in for breakfasts.

The menu generally changes after 11am, from breakfasts to dinner lunches.

She says she has built up a loyal list of suppliers, using the same beef supplier and many others for most of the 30 years.

Jean added that getting the right quantities was important and rarely did they run out of many foods.

“We would always have something to serve customers. I’ve served 800 people on some busy Saturdays in that canteen, with some having a full dinner, and some just teas or coffees,” she said.

Before the Covid-19 restrictions, Jean would have had 18 staff working on Saturdays, with two of them looking after a separate carry-out facility at the other end of the mart premises, and 16 in the main canteen.

Now with the numbers of customers beginning to increase again, she would have 10 staff in the canteen.

Jean’s canteen food has become well known by farmers from across Northern Ireland but her other outside catering service also included funeral meals/teas, Christening parties, church functions and weddings.

However, one of her greatest occasions during the year was providing the food for the Clogher Valley Show’s reception for judges and guests in the Food Hall on the evening before the main Show Day.

“I would say it was my showcase, and I was always grateful to be asked to do it,” she said. The cold meats and dressed salmon were complemented by a wide range of salads and accompaniments, followed by a range of spectacular desserts.

The quality of Jean's service and food was recognised in 2005 when she won the award for the Best Mart Cafe in the United Kingdom in a competition organised by Farmers' Weekly.

That was among some of the highs she had during a long career in catering, with the lows coming during the Foot and Mouth Disease crisis of 2001, when livestock markets, including her canteen, were closed for long periods and, of course, during some of the lockdown periods of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, Jean's smiles and affectionate personality has always been to the fore, spreading her positivity among the farming community.

Most farmers visiting the mart on a Saturday would probably have met either Jean or her husband, Jack, who runs J. M. Livestock – an animal health and supplement company – as he has a trade stand at the mart also on Saturdays.

So where does Jean like to eat out, and how will she retire?

“My favourite place to eat is the Valley Hotel, Fivemiletown,” she says, revealing she loves the taste of the foods served there.

“I know it will be hard to say no to a friend if they ask me to make a lemon meringue pie,” she adds with a laugh.

Jean’s last Saturday in the Clogher Mart canteen organising the menu will be this Saturday, July 31.