Tuesday 29 September 2009

El Bulli, Costa Brava

A lot of people will tell you that Ferran Adrià, head chef at El Bulli, is a genius. For what it's worth, I think he probably is, but being a mere mortal myself it's quite a hard call to make. You see, that's the problem with genius - you almost need to be a genius yourself to recognise it in others, at least before the ideas and innovations developed by said genius become mainstream, and until they do you're more likely to be baffled or frustrated (or even worse, cursed with jealousy, Salieri-like) than, well, really actually enjoy much of it.

Consider the Beatles. Widely accepted as the greatest rock and roll band of all time, in eight short years they grew from exciting and innovative rock performers to wildly inventive studio technicians through to assured and mature crafters of clever and literate pop albums. There would be few that would argue that The Beatles (or at least Lennon and McCartney, and towards the end Harrison) were geniuses in the traditional sense - they literally invented new ways of thinking about and performing music, and their songs are stamped into the world's musical consciousness in the same way as Mozart and Beethoven. But have you listened to the White Album recently? It's one third brilliant and listenable (Blackbird, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Dear Prudence), one third challenging and experimental, but still just about accessible (Happiness Is a Warm Gun, Julia, Glass Onion) and one third bizarre, unlistenable trash (Wild Honey Pie, Why Don't We Do It In The Road?, Revolution 9). Even today it's quite hard going; God knows what they made of it in 1968. I remember my father telling me the first time he heard I'm Only Sleeping (from the album Revolver) that it was so odd with its false endings and backwards cymbals and dreamy vocals that he couldn't believe anyone could ever enjoy it. Of course now it's a seminal moment in psychedelic pop and a thoroughly good listen. When you experiment so freely, some stand the test of time and some don't. I refer you to Revolution 9.

But back to the present, and to a small restaurant at the end of a precipitous coastal road 15 minutes out of the seaside resort of Rosas in north-east Spain. It is a lovely spot, in common with much of this stretch of coastline, and the restaurant makes the most of it by serving "canapés" and "cocktails" on a very attractive terrace overlooking the bay. I use the quotation marks deliberately, because these are not canapés or cocktails as you would know them. Our "Caipirinhas" and "Mojitos" were actually short stems of sugar cane soaked in alcohol and sprinkled with salt and sugared lime peel and mint - you chew on the cane and the liquid squeezes out into your mouth very satisfyingly. It was innovative and refreshing and very enjoyable. It was also probably the most normal thing we ate or drank all evening.

I won't go into detail on all the canapés but let me take just one initial example from the selection. In the foreground of the shot above are what look like normal, fresh, juicy strawberries. And indeed they were at one time, until El Bulli saw fit to inject the inside of them with something very very salty. So what we end up with is... salty strawberries. Which tasted pretty horrible, actually. Did I just not 'get' it? Will we all be eating salty fruit in a few years time and I'll look back on the time I thought they were horrible and laugh? Is salty fruit Adrià's I'm Only Sleeping or his Revolution 9?

And so the evening wore on, and we were reseated in the restaurant proper inside. After sucking on some flower heads (which contained a lovely hibiscus 'nectar' inside), we were presented with what looked like a big block of white soap. We were instructed to 'use the paper' to eat it, which turned out to be a largely useless bit of advice as it was so fragile it almost collapsed on contact. So I buried my face into it and came back with a mouthful of what tasted mostly like coconut soap. Not actively disgusting, and you have to admire the technical skill in making such a light 'sponge', but really, this was not a pleasant thing to eat. It was bland and soapy and weird.

Far better was the next course, a miso sponge which took what was presumably the same technique and applied it to a savoury ingredient. It was rich in umami and very prettily presented. As was a slice of fried chicken skin doused in a chicken stock reduced and concentrated so much it was like eating a stock cube. But in a good way.

Truffles presented two ways didn't do much for me - great big shavings of real truffle but they were cold and one had a strange gloopy mushroomy... thing inside it which was quite off-putting. And the next course was another pretty horrible one. Chervil 'tea' - which was as far as I can tell just liquidized chervil, served in a metal bowl and looking like drained bile in a hospital kidney dish. It was unseasoned and unsettling.

Next, a little bowl of very tasty sesame-flavoured raw (I think, or at least very very lightly cooked) prawns. These were actually really nice - fun to eat and with bags of seafood flavours, but they were accompanied by a mouthful of sea anemone and caviar which didn't really taste of much. Quite an achievement for caviar.

The next course was almonds presented a number of different ways - ice cream, jelly, whole, etc. They were fine, tasted like cold almond bits. But with it was a huge lump of incredibly salty mango. Now I'm not the biggest fan of mango at the best of times, but just like the salty strawberries this was inedible - unnecessarily, pointlessly experimental for the sake of experiment.

It may seem like I'm dwelling unnecessarily on the unpleasant items and skimming over the nice bits, but this was pretty much how it went all evening. A dish or an element of a dish that tasted great and looked attractive was very often accompanied or shortly followed by something bizarre or unpleasant. Take this one for example:

Here we have four gorgeous, fresh, raw cockles with a couple of slicks of vermouth reduction and beautifully cooked crispy fennel. And there, lurking in between the seafood, are two pieces of preserved kumquat which were so unbelievably sour it was like chomping down on a raw lemon. Why?

Next, soy done a number of different ways, which we were instructed to eat from left to right. This was really interesting actually, and on the whole fairly tasty - kind of like a journey through the land of soy. I liked the crunchy beany and sprouty bits and I liked the slicks of umami-rich paste. Didn't think much of the ice cream, which was pretty bland and there was too much of it, but other than that I was happy.

The next course was very nearly successful. A gorgeous looking arrangement of rose petals was described as an 'artichoke heart', and did indeed taste a little bit like that vegetable. But it was too bitter for my liking - these were after all raw rose petals - and underwhelming all said and done.

This cute little 'apple sandwich' was a highlight. The fruit was twisted and pulled in all different directions, forming a crunchy salsa and a gloopy jus as well as the 'bread' of the sandwich itself (presumably some sort of clever freeze-drying method). It may seem a bit too clever for its own good but this one went down really well. I don't mind them messing about too much if it actually tastes any good. Fun, too.

Next was another very strong dish. We were told to dip these three little bags filled with different presentations of pine nuts into the bowl of passion fruit soup and eat it immediately. The flavours and textures here were lovely - the soft, earthy nuts and rich sweet fruit matched perfectly and it was again great fun to eat.

This shell was filled with raw chopped oysters, mushrooms and God knows what else but tasted fantastic - in fact I'd say this was probably my favourite course of them all. I wouldn't normally like anyone messing with oysters but the mushrooms added an interesting earthy extra dimension to the briny shellfish and was incredibly successful.

These huge local prawns were very cleverly presented - raw bodies but with the legs and head somehow drawn up to the top and deep-fried. You could eat the whole thing, and the crunchy legs contrasted with the squishy flesh of the body.

Parmesan Ravioli was not entirely unpleasant, just a bit pointless. The flavour combinations were, for a change, subtle and the textures pleasantly balanced - the ravioli themselves contained a creamy parmesan sauce and burst in the mouth. Nice plate, too.

The next course was one I'd been dreading - Rabbit Offals - but turned out to be almost verging on conventional. At least the bits of rabbit were all cooked - very well too, I might add - and all slipped down very well like a very meaty bruschetta. Ironically, two of my friends on the same table had at the start of the meal opted not to go down the offal route and were instead served a genuinely disgusting course of baby squids ballooned with squid ink served with a foie gras foam. They were bitter and repellent, the ink coating your mouth like thick black bile.

Fortunately, the mysteriously titled 'Hunt' was far more straightforward. Juicy, tasty and well-cooked venison in a thick jus was served alongside a few little jellied sour berries (cranberries?) covered in gold leaf. It looked and tasted delicious.

Our next course was a small glass bowl with a thin layer of ice that somehow cleverly floated inside the rim of the bowl. It was sprinkled with green tea powder and brown sugar, and you ate it by cracking off bits of the ice with your spoon. I'm also pretty sure the ice itself was flavoured with peppermint. Technically impressive, and great fun to eat.

And then, just as it seemed the meal was settling down and being consistently if not great than at least edible, a giant dinosaur egg arrived. It turned out to be coconut milk 'cooked' on the inside of a balloon using liquid nitrogen, and was certainly a sight to behold. But - much like the coconut soap at the start of the meal - it didn't really taste of anything other than unsweetened coconut ice-cream, which is not something I'd normally choose to eat. I didn't eat much of it.

This dish of freeze-dried summer berries wrapped in a sort of flavoured rice paper was really great - bursting with fruity flavours and containing a bewildering array of textures that still managed to combine well. But that was swiftly followed by:

...this supposedly 'humorous' course of cockle shells filled with fruit ice cream served with yet more inedibly sour preserved fruit.

And that, more or less, was it. We were ushered out onto the beautiful front terrace for a final time and listened to the waves crashing onto Cala Montjoi as we stuffed as many of the house chocolates down our necks as we could. It was a meal that is almost impossible to make sense of, or make any decisions about. I was fretting about writing it up from the moment, during the canapés, that it became obvious that I would not enjoy everything put in front of me that evening. Some of it was great, certainly. And the service was sparkling - all evening attentive and discreet, friendly without being matey and pitch-perfect in every regard. But it seems that now, little under a week later, it's the really nasty moments that I remember rather than the highlights. If Adrià is a genius, then perhaps this meal was his White Album, mixing in equal parts the sublime, the experimental and the downright wrong. The Beatles made that album shortly after the death of their manager Brian Epstein, and it is a body of work that exists largely due to the absence of his sensible, commercial sensibilities. If I could have taken out the dishes I hated and left in the ones I liked, perhaps I would have enjoyed the evening more. But then, that's not my decision to make. I'm not the genius.

I'll leave you with one final thought. One of our canapés at the start of the meal was the famous Spherical Olives. Sort of an olive made of olive, a delicate membrane containing a thin sauce, they burst delicately in the mouth and give forth the most incredible concentrated olive flavour. Just the right mix of technical know-how, playful innovation and command of flavour, they have become a symbol of the kind of food El Bulli is lauded for creating. But they were first served a few years ago now, and it's hard to imagine anything else we were served this visit becoming a classic in the El Bulli canon. The Spherical Olives were perhaps being served at a time when the ambitions of the kitchen and the conventions of Western cuisine met at just the right time to produce food which was not only technically stunning but also accessible and, most importantly, tasty. If the White Album marked the point where the Beatles' cohesion and self-discipline were breaking down, then perhaps the same can be true of El Bulli today. But then, perhaps this is a necessary transition. After all, the Beatles went on to make Abbey Road. Will I be back to El Bulli? It's almost a relief to say I probably won't get the chance.


Thursday 17 September 2009

69 Colebrook Row and Paul A. Young chocolates

A few days ago, Timeout London announced the results of their Eating & Drinking Awards 2009. Like most of these 'best of' awards it's a mixture of the bafflingly arbitrary and downright predictable - there are very few people I know who would argue that the brilliant Harwood Arms shouldn't have won Best New Gastropub this year, but Lola Rojo on Northcote Road for best Spanish Restaurant over any of the Brindisa joints? Last time I went to Lola Rojo I paid £10 for a very odd plate of potato soufflés and tomato foam which they laughably called 'patatas bravas'. It was like tapas re-imagined by someone who'd applied to work at El Bulli but was rejected for being too pointlessly experimental.

But it's the choice of Best Bar that, perhaps inevitably, causes the most controversy. The crucial difference in bars as opposed to restaurants is that you can get pretty much the complete experience just popping in for 15 minutes and ordering a martini, whereas you can't really say you've 'eaten at' a restaurant unless you've sat down to a three course meal over a few hours. So whichever criteria you consider to be the most important in a bar (décor, clientele or the way the barman twists his lemon peel), it's likely you have the budget to visit far more of them in the space of a year than you can mid to high-end restaurants. And more customers means more opinion. And more opinion means more controversy.

And there ends my disclaimer for the decision behind this year's Timeout Best Bar, because I really can't see what the judges saw in 69 Colebrook Row. It's perfectly good, of course - a tiny little neighbourhood bar, a well stocked drinks cabinet and staff who if not experts are at least fairly competent. But it was when I saw the barman timidly pouring out a shot of gin into a little metal measuring cup before dumping it in the shaker that I knew this could never be up there with the best of them. The drinks, too, were timid - a bland house martini using Martini Extra Dry and a cerignola olive instead of the far more tasty combination of Noilly Prat and a twist of lemon, and a champagne cocktail which omitted the usual angostura-soaked sugar cube and brandy for a subtle floral note. Maybe it's just that I'm not a Tony Conigliaro fan; I was similarly nonplussed with the praised heaped upon the Shochu Lounge beneath Roka on Charlotte Street - when everyone was talking about molecular mixology all I noticed was overfussy and overpriced fruit cocktails. Or maybe I'm just far more difficult to please these days. I blame Rules.

That said, at £7 a drink you don't have too much to complain about, and it was still a perfectly pleasant way to whet our whistles before an evening tasting the world's finest chocolate at Paul A. Young. An ebullient, endlessly entertaining man, Paul survived longer than most in the kitchens of Marco Pierre White's various restaurants before setting up his own artisan chocolaterie. Everything is handmade using literally the finest chocolate the world has to offer and last night was kind enough to invite a group of food bloggers to try some of his latest creations in his tiny shop on Camden Passage.

To go through every different type of chocolate we ate last night wouldn't make particularly interesting reading, but it was extraordinary how what are essentially the same three varieties of cocoa beans (Criollo, the most sought after and most expensive, Trinitario, widely used, and Foresero which makes up the bulk of the big manufacturer's output) can be combined in such a way to produce such remarkably different end products. My favourite was a 70% dark chocolate called Toscano Black from Italian producer Amedei - fruity foretastes combined with a rich butteryness at the back of the mouth; a very satisfying tasting experience. Paul also let us try some of his signature truffles and ganaches, including the award-winning (and heart-meltingly wonderful) salty caramel truffle, the shocking marmite-flavoured (yes, really) truffle and the even more experimental but nonetheless successful port and stilton. Hey, don't knock it 'till you've tried it. They are also the first people outside the US to stock Tcho artisan chocolate from San Francisco, who arrange their dark chocolate into flavour groups such as 'citrus' and 'earthy'.

We were shown around the tiny (albeit spotless and immaculately organised) kitchens where all the chocolates are hand made every morning, and Paul proudly showed off some of the amazing chocolate leaves he's made (using moulds crafted from actual leaves) for a special autumn window display. He also gave us a sneak preview of his next project - recreating a mayan ceremonial skull using tiny squares of alternating black and milk chocolate. It promises to be spectacular. Paul will also want me to mention his new book, Adventures with Chocolate, out on October 8th published by Kyle Cathie, which is the least I can do in return for such a fascinating and enjoyable evening. Many thanks to Paul and his crew for making it happen, and consider me your latest chocolateer.

69 Colebrook Row 7/10
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Apologies for the lack of chocolate pictures - I was snapping away but if there's one thing the iPhone is singularly incapable of photographing it's small dark objects in a dark room. I will edit the post with proper pictures ASAP.

Thursday 10 September 2009

Rules, Covent Garden

Looking back now, to those bleak, monochrome days before I ate the Rules grouse, I suppose I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I had high hopes, of course, mainly thanks to Simon Majumdar and his giddy tour of the kitchens a few weeks back, and was also looking forward to trying the cocktails in the (still relatively new) Rules Bar upstairs. But it seemed like an odd venue - I was worried that, sitting on the reputation as London's Oldest Restaurant and therefore able to suck in enough heritage-starved American tourists and blousy Old Boys to keep the profits ticking over through good times and bad, that Rules didn't actually need to be any good at all. And, it goes without saying, very few of the places that don't need to be good actually, well, are. I was worried it would be staid, overpriced, stuffy, stifling and stressful. In the end, it was none of those things, and in fact turned out to the most wonderful evening I've enjoyed in a very long time.

Events began in the dark-panelled, carpeted luxury of the upstairs bar, and with the creation of a drink called the Golden Negroni. Like all good cocktails, there was that balance of familiar comforting flavours and just a hint of the mysterious. Apparently lurking in it somewhere was a touch of Poire William. It was remarkably easy to drink. While waiting for various members of our party to arrive, I was invited to sit at the bar itself and watch the mixing of my next order up close. Called the Edge, it contained fresh grated horseradish and tasted of cosy evenings in front of a log fire. Perhaps not very seasonal, but delicious nonetheless.

After an hour or so of blissful contentment which passed as if it was five minutes, it was time to move downstairs and take our seats for dinner. With its high ceilings and walls covered in memorabilia and paraphernalia, Rules feels every one of its 211 years old. How nice, though, to be in a restaurant that has gathered its mementos and photographs honestly and gradually over many years, instead of buying them all at once in a bid to invent an illustrious past like so many gastropubs. This is a place with real history, and a confidence in its own reputation as a London dining destination. And we were about to find out why.

My starter was Morecambe Bay potted shrimps, one of my favourite comfort foods at the best of times, but here, thanks to Rules' use of lobster butter to bind the sweet crustaceans together, it took on a new, luxurious identity. I will admit that my knowledge of potted shrimp was previously limited to the little plastic pots you can buy at foodie markets, but even so, these were lovely. And although my dish came on the back of a recommendation from His Maj, the standards of the other starters on our table were equally high - in particularly a gorgeous dressed crab with a perfectly balanced brown meat mix.

And then the grouse. It will give you an idea of how very reasonable the prices are in this restaurant when I tell you that this labour-intensive, hand caught game bird was at only £27.50 the most expensive item on the Rules menu last night. But in this blogger's humble opinion, the experience it delivered was close to priceless. Served with crispy bacon, some duck liver paté on toast and the traditional game chips, the only slightly unusual element was a few sprigs of highland heather protruding from the back of the bird. And yet almost before the first bite of the gorgeously pink, moist meat had reached my lips, I knew this was going to be something special. The smell - oh, lordy, the smell - it was of open countryside, highland moors and healthy living. It was an aroma that did more than simply get the taste buds going, it assaulted my emotions directly, whisking me back to childhood trips to Cumbria and of long walks on hot summer's days. And it was no less affecting in the mouth - to call the flavour "gamey" is to not even touch the surface of how extraordinarily, wonderfully powerful the flavour of this little bird was - a deep, rich flavour like no other animal I've ever tasted. I ate in stunned, intense silence, methodically pulling every bit of the carcass apart and savouring every last morsel of offal from inside and out. Later in the evening I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror; I had grouse blood splattered down the front of my white shirt and looked like Sweeney Todd after a particularly busy day. I was so overwhelmed I hadn't even noticed at the time.

After dinner, we moved back upstairs once again and allowed Brian Silva, the head barman, to gently bring us down from our game-fuelled high with a plate of Colton Basset stilton and Pedro Ximines dessert sherry. We chatted happily across the bar and drank wonderful cocktails until we were the last people in the room. It was a magical evening, one of those nights where every element of every bite and slurp brings joy and each moment slides blissfully into the next. But it was the grouse that was the star of an evening not short of highlights. That I recommend Rules as a restaurant should by now be obvious - you absolutely, positively have to go, and soon, before the season is over. It's just too good to miss.


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Wednesday 9 September 2009

Maze, Mayfair

It was the best of meals, it was the worst of meals. In fact in the end, it wasn't quite either, it was just maddeningly, bewilderingly inconsistent, and giving an overall score to a sequence of small dishes, 50% of which were excellent and 50% horrible, served half in daylight and half in increasing pitch blackness, accompanied by service that veered between winningly professional and laughably incompetent, will prove quite a challenge. Let's see how we do.

First of all, the traditional Ramsay velouté starter. Perfectly pleasant, with a miniscule amount of lobster meat but with an interesting if not wholly successful cold parmesan ice cream thingy (OK, a "parfait"). As with so many of Ramsay's sub-3* dishes, it's admirable if not entirely loveable. A bit like the man himself, in fact.

The first proper course was a neat little row of marinated beetroot and cheese constructions. These were pretty good for a vegetarian dish - the sharpness of the marinated veg was balanced nicely with the rich cheese and pine nuts added some pleasant texture. Nothing too extraordinary though.

Up next, the famous Maze signature dish of an ironic 'BLT' - that is, tomato gelée, bacon onion cream and lettuce velouté. An ambitious dish (just look at the recipe) and one with a weight of expectation behind it, I'm afraid I was slightly underwhelmed. It was fine, just absolutely nothing more than you might think cold tomato jelly, bacon bits and lettuce soup would taste like. The best bit, in fact, was the accompanying croque monsieur, which was a perfectly balanced and strongly flavoured cheese and ham toastie. And who doesn't like a cheese and ham toastie?

So, from the ridiculous to the sublime. The next course of pork belly, pig's head, crackling and jasmine tea was a pleasingly powerful mix of flavours and textures. The jasmine "tea", in particular, was as good a sauce I have had for a very long time, rich and satisfying with an incredibly deep, complex flavour. The pork belly was slightly on the chewy side but tasted good enough, and the crackling was delicate and fun to eat. I can only apologise for the photo, my poor iPhone by this time battling with the bizarre compulsion of the staff to turn the house lights down every ten minutes. I should also mention that a vegetarian dining companion had by this time been served a full four out of five dishes garnished with pea shoots. If you are a vegetarian and want to eat at Maze, you'd better like pea.

So from the sublime, back to the ridiculous. Roasted Anjou pigeon was a disappointingly stringy cut of breast meat (I nearly pulled a muscle trying to cut the damn thing up), with a wobbly skin and an overly sharp red wine sauce. Sadly, that wasn't the worst thing about it though. Through the murk of the restaurant lighting (they had turned them down again) I noticed an ominous black blob of something very dark perched on top of the pigeon breast. Thinking it would be some sort of marinated fruit or braised vegetable, I popped it in my mouth. My stomach instantly heaved in reaction to a huge blob of bitter chocolate, sickly and overwhelming and completely unsuitable in this amount to the rest of the dish. Even if the pigeon had been good quality (it wasn't) or cooked well (it wasn't), the baffling addition of half a pound of raw 70% chocolate as a 'garnish' to this meat was a complete disaster. Adding a small amount of chocolate to liven up a red wine sauce or chilli con carne is perfectly acceptable. Dumping such a relatively huge amount onto a dish such as this (bearing in mind these are all small tasting plates) is a frankly unforgivable mistake. Awful.

Unbelievably, the house lights dropped yet again before the arrival of the pre-dessert, which was a lovely shot of lemon sorbet sat on top of an incredibly strongly flavoured lime and passion fruit jelly. Served with it was a perfectly moist almond financier (cake). I was beginning to feel dizzy by this point, and it wasn't just because I couldn't see the floor. How could the same kitchen that considered it acceptable to turn out that chocolate pigeon monstrosity also produce such an interesting and exciting dessert?

The final course was served in near-darkness. The ironically-titled "peanut butter and cherry jam sandwich" was nothing of the sort, it was just a pleasant combination of peanut-flavoured ice cream and cherry jam and sorbet. I would like to tell you it was presented well, but I could hardly see it - I just blindly hacked away in front of me with my spoon until it eventually came back empty. It tasted fine, but as the saying goes we eat with our eyes first, and if I wanted to dine in the dark I would have booked elsewhere.

I will also say a word about our waiters. The front of house was professional and sharp, and the sommelier friendly and helpful. But in between periods of excellent service was an incident where a member of our table (I wasn't drinking, for a change) was shown his empty wine bottle and asked (actually more like mumbled) something about wanting another one. This was, bear in mind, well after we had finished our last savoury course. Given a firm no, he slunk off, then another member of staff immediately returned and poured nearly a full glass of wine out of what suspiciously looked like the same "empty" bottle. Now, I wouldn't suggest for a moment they had swapped the bottles to make it look empty the first time, but even so the implication, without us being asked to examine the bottle closely, was that it was empty. And I wonder - had we had said yes to another bottle when first asked, would that final glass from the first bottle have mysteriously disappeared?

The final insult, as is sadly so often the case, was the bill. I had barely more than a sniff of our single bottle of wine between the three of us, from the lower end of the wine list, and we only ate the "recommended" number of dishes - that is, 7 small plates of food each. And yet the bill came to nearly £100 per person. This is too way much to feel like good value when there are such glaring errors in the cooking. Perhaps, if you went every day for a couple of weeks and worked your way through the myriad of dishes you'd eventually be able to construct a flow of their best offerings and be able to enjoy a reasonably consistent evening. But by that time not only would you still only have a solid single Michelin-star meal but you'd have permanently damaged your eyesight and be about £1000 worse off. So your best bet is just to go to one of the many other much better restaurants in this price range. And that, sad to say, is pretty much all of them.


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