NORTHAMPTON — Husband-wife team Terry Ragasa and Susan Mygatt Ragasa, have their hands full. Their artisan shop on King Street, Sutter Meats, has been open about five months. They’re working with a dozen local farmers, who bring in animals whole or partially broken down, so their work is (literally) cut out for them. In addition, the couple is expecting their first baby, a boy, in the fall. “We haven’t really had a chance to breathe,” says Susan.
Sutter Meats (the name is a union of the couple’s first names), a cozy little shop that blends the Old World feel of hand-painted signage and wainscoting with a modern ethos, is one of a growing number of boutique butchers. This new wave of butchery is distinguished by its commitment to buying whole animals raised on pasture land from farmers invested in the animals’ health and care.
Terry, 37, apprenticed at the well-regarded butcher shop Fleisher’s Grass-Fed & Organic Meats in Kingston, N.Y., in the Hudson River Valley in 2007. Afterward, he ran whole-animal butchery programs in Brooklyn’s Fort Green and New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. Susan acquired her initial butchering skills through hands-on work at Fleisher’s last summer, after spending more than a decade at Christie’s Auction House in the city.
The duo moved to Northampton in August 2013 and chose it, explains Terry, because they were looking for the kind of place where you could ring a dinner bell. “Northampton,” he says, “was a perfect little city in the midst of a lot of farms, and a place we could afford with the capital we had to invest.”
Terry is responsible for most of the meat cutting. He uses European seam butchery, a lesser-known technique that follows the connections between bone and meat and the natural fat and cartilage lines that isolate individual muscles. Seaming helps butchers make use of animals from nose to tail, while highlighting the unique grains and flavors of individual muscles. “The way I learned it,” he says, “You should be able to break down the entire animal with a butter knife.”
So far, business is booming. The Ragasas work with farms mostly within a 15-mile radius. The shop sells more than 60 whole chickens a week and butchers two to three pigs, two small lambs, and one head of beef, which arrives quartered. Lambs come whole and pigs halved lengthwise, not typical in most markets. Pastured meat doesn’t come cheap. Chickens sell for $4 per pound, bone-in pork loin chops and flank steak are both $11.99.
Because of heavy demand for familiar favorites, Terry doesn’t offer exclusively seamed cuts. “People want pork chops and ribs,” he says. The meat case is organized by seasonal cuts and cooking method. Beef sirloin offers a perfect perspective on the two styles. The sirloin is an extension of the hip area of a steer between the loin and leg (it’s also known as the rump). American butchery would dictate a cut across this large section of meat, resulting in steaks that vary in tenderness. By seaming the individual muscles of the sirloin, Ragasa can offer three distinct cuts: the top sirloin, filet, and culotte, each of which can be prepared differently.
As for the pig, Ragasa says he can typically break down an entire half of these roughly 200-pound animals in about 15 minutes using a hack saw and a 5-inch Victorinox boning knife. When the pigs arrive, Ragasa gets the most popular meats case-ready: butt, chops, sausages, cutlets, belly, and jowls and hocks for pates. He smokes and brines hams and roasts his own beef. If you’re lucky, you might get a taste.
The next step in this entrepreneurial venture, the couple agrees, is to work on the educational component. They plan to offer classes that will include butchery demos in which participants will learn knife skills, seam butchery technique, and watch a chef work with hard-to-find cuts.
For now, they are gradually introducing charcuterie, sandwiches, and local tamales made with their own meat, and trying to keep up with daily chores.
The shop and their work connect them to the community and the land. “I started in this field because I wanted to feel invested in my work and figured if I was going to be working 80-hour weeks, I want it to be with my husband,” says Susan.
“Ultimately,” adds Terry, “it’s a labor of love.”
Sutter Meats, 65 King St., Northampton, 413-727-3409, www.suttermeats.com
Shelley Kirkwood can be reached at email@example.com.