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Meet the Roscommon farmer supplying beef to Jamie Oliver's Dublin restaurant

The Gilligan family are supplying some of the top chefs in the country, including Jamie Oliver and Marco Pierre White, with prime beef from their Roscommon farm.

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Rubbing shoulders with celebrity chefs:  Padraic Gilligan pictured on his Roscommon farm. Photo: Brian Farrell

Rubbing shoulders with celebrity chefs: Padraic Gilligan pictured on his Roscommon farm. Photo: Brian Farrell

Rubbing shoulders with celebrity chefs: Padraic Gilligan pictured on his Roscommon farm. Photo: Brian Farrell

Padraic Gilligan once brought a lamb (not a live one) to Jamie Oliver's Dundrum restaurant, to demonstrate to staff the source of various cuts so that they could converse knowledgeably with customers about what was on offer.

So when the Co Roscommon farmer says "you don't win these things easily" about his new contract to supply Chequer Lane, the celebrity chef's latest Dublin restaurant which is due to open in April, he is not joking.

"This has been going on for six or seven months," he explains. "We had to send samples twice, and I went to Dublin for five or six meetings."

Padraic's son Alan agrees that bringing a lamb to Dublin, where it was butchered and cooked, is a pretty good indicator of how high the bar is if you want to do business with the likes of Jamie Oliver, or any of the award-winning restaurateurs who get their meat from this remarkable family operation.

It's a 200-acre plus enterprise, with a staff of 22, complete with custom-built abattoir, and butchering, boning and packaging facilities, located on the Derrane Road, in Four Mile House near Roscommon town.

When Padraic's grandfather, Tom, built the family farmhouse and started working the land in 1915, he never dreamt that over 100 years later that some of the most famous chefs in the world would have Four Mile House produce on their menus.

"We supply Marco Pierre White's restaurant in Donnybrook and they sell a lot of fillet, and it is just phenomenal on a weekend when there's a Six Nations game in the Aviva," explains Alan.

Padraic adds: "What happens in Ballsbridge does affect us down here. A Six Nations game gives a boost to the economy and we feel it too."

The family supplies other high-end restaurants such as the Michelin-starred Chapter One and l'Gueuleton, also in Dublin; they also sell to Joyce's family supermarkets in Co Galway and now export to Germany.

Alan believes that the farm-to-fork ethos of the family business attracts the big culinary names who want assurances about animal welfare as well as about the source of meat and methods of production.

There were a few raised eyebrows when it emerged that the Gilligans play music, usually Percy French songs, for their cattle right up the moment they are slaughtered, but they believe that relaxing the cattle ensures the meat is tender.

"My mother used to sing to the cows when she was milking and they produced better," explains Padraic.

"If the animal is stressed before it is slaughtered, the pH levels go too high and the meat will be tougher," adds Alan, who is a graduate of Mountbellew Agricultural College and also studied business in Athlone IT.

Father and son insist that they never get sick of the Brendan O'Dowda repertoire of Percy French numbers which seem to do the trick for their herd. Alan says the lyrics soothe the cattle.

"Animals react to voices. If a stranger went into a field they would know straight away and they would get spooked," he says.

Chequer Lane will be run by Gerry Fitzpatrick, who teamed up with Jamie Oliver in 2012; he has stressed that to become a supplier "you have to jump through hoops".

The animals' diet is just one of many factors which is important.

"I would say 99pc of the rations this year came off the farm," explains Alan. "We make early silage and we grow barley so we have straw for lie-backs for bedding."

Dry straw beds

He believes this was one of the factors which won Gilligans their latest contract.

"The guidelines are very strict. Jamie Oliver prefers to have animals on dry straw beds rather than the traditional slatted houses. We do have slats for feeding but they have the option to lie back on straw. So you have the best of both worlds."

The Gilligans' abattoir, built in 2000 on the family farm, means they can assure their clients they control the entire production process from feeding, butchering and packaging to creating their own burger recipes and dry-aging their steaks in Achill sea salt.

They farm 220 acres and have 500 cattle, all Aberdeen Angus and Hereford.

"They generally give a nice marble fat through the steaks which is good for flavour. Chefs prefer that," says Alan.

With more people opting to go vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons, the Gilligans know they must ensure that the meat the provide is a top-quality product because people will increasingly regard it as a treat.

"In the climate we are in at the minute, people are demanding a top-quality product because they are going to eat less of it," says Padraic.

"When they go to eat in a restaurant they want to make sure it is right, and our entire operation is geared to that.

Normally animals are housed from November to early February but according to Alan you have to "roll with the seasons" and live with whatever the weather throws at you.

"Generally we would hope to have our cattle out by now but obviously it's not possible in this weather," he says.

"It would be pointless letting them out and have them losing condition. I don't consider it frustrating. It is part and parcel of what we do. You have to roll with whatever Mother Nature throws at you."

Gilligans aiming to have a carbon-neutral farming operation within a decade

Ask Padraic Gilligan what he thinks about the growing trend towards not eating meat and he answers with a question.

"Would you like a natural product from a farm or would you prefer to eat a steak that was created in a lab?"

It's fairly obvious what he'd prefer but he does concede that a balanced diet is important and stresses that his family operation is striving to be carbon-neutral within 10 years.

"The environment is so special that everyone has to respect it and look after it and I think farmers are to the fore in that," he said.

Padraic's son Alan says they take expert advice on how to reduce their carbon footprint: "We are learning every year - there is lots to be learned and lots to do."

Lessons learned already are about how to improve the soil structure and get more organic matter into it, like farmyard manures, he explains.

"If you get it aerated you can sequester more carbon into the soil. This is something we have learned and are trying to implement."

The Gilligans had an audit carried out by the Carbon Trust in 2009 to see how much C02 they produce.

"We were half the national average at the time," says Alan, whose view is that there is "no one magic pill" to tackle the problem but lots of measures which can help.

"We do need to reduce it and we have already introduced measures."

Planting trees and hedgerows was a start.

"With hedgerows it is important to get biodiversity in there," says Alan.

"They can sequester as much carbon as trees, if they are maintained properly".

The Gilligans use organic fertilisers and get the soil sampled regularly to monitor progress. "It's a big plus that we don't have to buy in much feed because we produce almost all we need," says Padraic.

And are they their own best customers when it comes to meat?

"Steak is my favourite," Padraic says. "I was in London at the weekend and I was mad to come home to get a decent steak".

Does he eat meat every day? "I wouldn't be let," he laughs.

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