I pull into the free car park besides the Diplomat massage parlour and prepare to pop my cherry. It’s what I do in Attercliffe at this time of year.
For some this steamy Sheffield suburb spells saunas, sex clubs, massage parlours and curries but for me it means cherries. Big, ripe, juicy – and free – fruit just there for the taking. Right now in the cemetery, between the gravestones erected by long-expired families, the cherry trees are beginning to crop.
It looks to be a very good year. As I write the first of the fruit is ready. Bright and dark red berries hang temptingly from the branches, not yet broken and torn down by children and yobs without the patience to pick carefully.
I reach up and pop a cherry in my mouth. Its sharp juices with that hint of sweetness explode on my tongue. You can see why cherries suggest sex: their ripeness, flavour, colour and shape cry sensuality. In the past the girls who sold cherries with the cry of ‘Cherry ripe . . . who will buy?’ as in Robert Herrick’s poem, were not just selling fruit.
The cemetery runs down to the River Don and nearby is the site of the old Hecla steelworks. Pollution from it is said to have made the location poor for vegetation but the cherries are certainly thriving.
I am not the first here. Someone has picked ‘earring’ pairs of cherries and hung them on the branches of other trees, one a fir, so it looks like a Christmas bauble out of season. The long pointed leaves of the cherry remind me of African shields.
These cherries are small and sharp in flavour and as I move through the cemetery my fingers become rapidly stained with juice. I have brought a small step ladder which enables me to pick the fruit otherwise just beyond reach. These trees are big, tall and most of the cherries will go unpicked although many have already fallen, studding the grass with little orbs of scarlet. I reach to pick some cherries and find they have already been half eaten by birds.
Then I find a tree with larger, sweeter fruit. And another. I’m not greedy but I fill three plastic icecream tubs with cherries, at least a pound in each.
I have the cemetery all to myself, except for a man asleep in a tent pitched behind some bushes. I can see him when the wind blows back the flap. Empty beer cans surround the tent.
We have the biggest and the best ‘dessert’ cherries for tea, with the first garden raspberries. I use a cherry stoner to remove the pips. It’s not a relaxing occupation like topping and tailing gooseberries. Cherries catch you unawares, squirting juice or the pips flying out like bullets. But they tasted all the sweeter for being free.
The smaller ones will be for jam but I’m not going to extract every stone. I have a plan. I will cook down the cherries then rub them through a sieve, reserving the pulp. It works to a point. I don’t want to overcook so they’re still a little hard and I end up picking out each pip with the point of a spoon.
This takes an hour and I am in no mood to make jam now so leave the cherry pulp in the fridge. The following day I weigh the pulp, a little over a pound. My recipe advises 14oz sugar to every pound of fruit and a tablespoon of lemon juice. I get a couple of jars for my efforts, set on the third testing.
The left over cherries are still in the fridge. They will make a jelly so there is no need to stone them, thank goodness.
I may make a return trip to the cemetery but there are cherry trees all over Sheffield. I’m keeping quiet about some of the others!
Robert Herrick wrote: “Cherry ripe, cherry ripe/ Ripe I cry/ Full and fair ones/ Come and buy.” You can pay to pop your cherry in Attercliffe but these come free.