Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Exploring Armenia 4: Yerevan - Grand Candy


What better post to share on Halloween than one that is all about sweets! Grand Candy is one of my favorite foodie adventures in Armenia. It's a chain of candy and chocolate stores (22 locations according to their website), but it's really so much more. Here's a little backstory on Grand Candy.

Grandy Candy had its roots in the Yerevan Confectionery and Pasta Factory in 1934. In the early 1950s it became one of the largest confectionery factories of the era. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economy in Armenia was destroyed, and with it the plant became virtually inactive. It was later privatized, but still only worked at a small percentage of it's capacity. At the end of 1999, an Armenian businessman named Hrant Vardaryan bought the company, changed the name to Grand Candy and started building a new, modern factory. In April of 2000, the company started back up with the production of confections, finding a large market and gaining popularity in the region.

Grand Candy is now the largest manufacturer of confectionery products in Armenia and the only factory in the region that processes cocoa beans. All of their products are high quality, and only use the best, totally natural ingredients. There are no artificial preservatives and additives in their products. Their products range from hard candies, chocolates, and cookies. Grandy Candy also set a record in the Guiness Book of World Records for the world's largest chocolate bar.

In addition to the Grand Candy factory and retail stores throughout Yerevan, there is also the story of the Ponchikanots, which now belongs to Grandy Candy. A ponchik is essentially fried dough filled with pastry cream, topped with powdered sugar and served piping hot (unlike other cream-filled donuts which may be served at room temperature).


The Ponchikanots Cafe was a major part of student life in Yerevan in the 1950s. My own mother has the fondest memories of going there with her friends to enjoy ponchiks and hot chocolate after classes on a regular basis. It was right by her university campus.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ponchikanots took a major hit. It was closed and turned into offices. Once again, Hrant Vardaryan came to the rescue. He purchased the space in 2000. Here at the former site of the original Ponchikanots, he opened the updated Ponchikanots along with the Grand Candy flagship store. A pink elephant named Grand became the mascot of the store and welcomes visitors into each location.

What more can I say about Grand Candy and the Ponchikanots other than professing my love for them both. I absolutely love the confections here, especially the chocolates. My favorite chocolates by far is the collection filled with dried fruit and nuts.

Clockwise from top left: apricot/walnut, fig/walnut, peach/almond, plum/almond

Whether it's a dried apricot topped with a walnut, a dried peach paired with an almond, a dried fig partnered with a walnut, or a dried plum stuffed with an almond, all of which are then draped with dark chocolate, these creations are extraordinary. They are some of my favorite chocolates I've ever had. Local fruits and nuts, along with locally processed cocoa beans make these truly special. I bring them back as gifts for my friends, and they always fall in love just as I have.

Clockwise from top left: apricot/walnut, fig/walnut, peach/almond, plum/almond

In addition for my chocolate love, the ponchiks at the Ponchikanots also keep bringing me back. With greasy, sugary fingers, I tear apart these hot custard-filled donuts faster than you can say "ponchik." They are naughty and decadent.

Although the original vanilla custard-filled version is truly a classic, I also love the rich chocolate filled version. I didn't get a chance to try their fall flavor of the moment, featuring an apple filling, but it looked quite scrumptious as well.

I'm so thrilled to have shared with you the delicious history of Armenia's own Grand Candy. I know what I'll be enjoying this Halloween ;)

Grand Candy
54 Mesrob Mashtots Street
Yerevan, Armenia
(374 10) 532926

Colorful interior of the Ponchikanots matches similar colorful decor in all the Grand Candy stores

Monday, October 29, 2012

Exploring Armenia 3: Yerevan - Dining Out

Tumanyan Khinkali window display: two Georgian men eating khinkali... so cute!

One of my favorite parts of traveling is dining out. In Armenia, we do quite a bit of dining in at people's houses, but I also love checking out fun and popular restaurants and occasionally trying different cuisines. The last time I was in Yerevan, my friends took me to the first Chinese restaurant that opened there. Growing up eating Chinese food in America, it was definitely not news to me, but I remember being really impressed by the food! I knew then that Armenia was definitely opening up to new cultural experiences and cuisines. I was happy to see they also have sushi and Mexican food as well, which I know didn't exist a decade ago.

This trip I was really excited once again to explore the restaurant scene in Yerevan. We enjoyed delicious meals at Nyam Nyam as well as several cafes, but there were a few more dining highlights that I simply must share. First off, we visited an underground restaurant that specializes in large Georgian dumplings called khinkali. In fact, the dish itself is the name of the restaurant, so there's really no confusion on what they're best at making. I have had countless khinkali in my life. It's a dish I've always enjoyed. The pleated dumplings are very large and usually filled with seasoned ground beef and cilantro. They are eaten plain, with just a sprinkling of black pepper, if desired. The knob where the pleats meet at the top is discarded because it's thick and tough (this also helps you count how many khinkali you've eaten).

Khinkali are typically boiled, so that's how we tried our first batch of khinkali (all of which is made to order by hand). They were outstanding. The filling was the juiciest I've ever encountered. The broth was flavorful and fairly clear, which honestly made me wonder if they adapted Chinese soup dumpling techniques into their khinkali-making. Regardless of their secret methods, these were most definitely the best khinkali of my life.

We were also told that we must try the fried khinkali. This was new to us and we were excited to try something less traditional. Frying yielded a more crisp crust than the chewy but tender boiled version. It was delicious but started to get soggy and less crisp pretty fast. It was also much heavier and filled us faster. Although we enjoyed the fried khinkali, we couldn't eat as many of the fried version as we could of the boiled. The filling was still equally as juicy and delicious, of course.

While we thought the khinkali was extraordinary, the service here was simply atrocious. I can't possibly glorify this restaurant without telling the truth about the quality of the staff. They have a lot to learn about treating customers well. When we walked into the restaurant to eat, not a single staff member stopped to see us to a table. They didn't ask us how many people were in our party or if we preferred smoking or non-smoking. They didn't bother to tell us that they were very full and that we'd have to wait. They totally ignored us. When we got frustrated and inquired with one of the staff members about why we were just standing there and no one was bothering to help us, he brushed us off. We finally asked for the manager and he managed to clear off a table for us and get us seated, but even then it was an afterthought. We were ignored during the entirety of our meal. As an American and food blogger, I have never witnessed such disregard for customer care. If Tumanyan Khinkali was in America, their outstanding food would never be enough to outweigh their horrible service. I read that they recently opened a location on the French Riviera. I hope the service there is better than in Yerevan. I wholeheartedly loved the khinkali here, but was so appalled by the service that I would think again before returning. Sorry. Sad, but true.

Tumanyan Khinkali
21/1 Tumanyan Street
Yerevan, Armenia
(374 10) 582352

Speaking of service, I had the complete opposite experience at Tavern Yerevan (or Pandok Yerevan... that means tavern in Armenian). This place was recommended to us from our driver for our trip to Karabakh (which will be discussed in a later post). Not only did we take him up on his suggestion, but we were so impressed by both the food and the service that we returned a second time!

The menu

Inside the menu... I loved that it had pictures! Definitely helped us pick what we wanted (what looked most appetizing) since the menu had names but not thorough descriptions.

As far as service goes, it was a total 180 from what we experienced at Tumanyan Khinkali. The staff not only paid attention to us, but were courteous and attentive. When I got up to use the restroom three different people helped point me in the right direction (and it wasn't hard to find, they were just being extremely helpful!).

We loved everything from the setting (it was slightly cavernous and underground with Middle Eastern accents in the decor) to the uniforms the staff wore. The space wasn't too large and during busy hours it was clearly a popular spot.

Selecting our food was fun too with a picture menu. While we picked over the delicious selection of bread (4 different kinds), we selected several items for everyone at the table to share. During our two visits to Tavern Yerevan, we tried the following dishes...

During both visits my dad ordered the aveluk (wood sorrel) soup. I tried it too and was really impressed. It was incredibly garlicky and not only contained the greens for which it was named, but also small chunks of potato, making it just a bit heartier as well.

My mom and I decided to share the bean soup (made with kidney beans), which the restaurant actually served to us in separate bowls. I was really impressed that they did this because I've only encountered that service (splitting food onto separate plates for people sharing) at some of the nicer restaurants I've been to in the United States.

Rustic bowls, really gorgeous

The soup itself was absolutely fantastic. Bean soup sounds pretty basic, but the flavors were so intense and delicious and the texture was nice and creamy with chunks of bean as well. It was one of the best soups I've had in a really long time. It excited me for fall and soup season. I will have to make some bean soup really soon :)

We decided to try the fried potatoes and mushrooms on our first visit and loved it so much we ordered it again on our return. Both components were fried perfectly and seasoned with just a bit of salt and some dill. Although I hate dill, the amount was moderate enough to accent the dish and not overwhelm my dill-hating taste buds. I will have to make this myself some time.

For the first of our main dishes, we ordered ishkhan (Sevan trout) baked in lavash. The fish was most likely grilled first and then wrapped and finished off in the lavash. With the exception of large chunks of dill, the skin and a couple pin bones, this was a lovely package. It became easier to eat by disassembling it to remove the skin (and dill, in my case) and then chowing away. This was also a really fun idea that I'd love to try in my kitchen (but with a skinless fillet and NO DILL).

Cross section of the lavash-wrapped ishkhan. It was still actually really juicy!

We also tried a dish called odjakhuri containing fried cubes of potatoes, chunks of pork, tomato wedges, onions, and bell peppers. The potatoes were obviously fried separately and then mixed in with the other ingredients, but the combination of flavors permeated every component. We thought this dish was outstanding as well!

Hands down, my favorite discovery at Tavern Yerevan was the amazing chakhokhbili. This Georgian dish contains tomatoes, lots of sliced onions, cilantro, and a mountain of spices. They serve rabbit and chicken with this preparation; we opted for the rabbit. Holy Bugs Bunny, Batman, this was so absolutely outstanding I can't even put it into words.

My taste buds are still tingling just thinking about it. Super tender rabbit (or chicken if bunnies are too cuddly for you) in a tangy and spicy tomato-based sauce with loads and loads of sweet melted onions. Good God, I want this dish again and I want it now. Thank you Tavern Yerevan for making my belly happy and full on not one, but TWO occasions. I love you!

Tavern Yerevan
(multiple locations, but this is the newest and largest location where we ate...)
5 Amiryan Street
Yerevan, Armenia
(010) 545-545, (099) 545-545

Finally, we're onto the third and last restaurant in this installment (psst, my next two posts will focus on chocolate and booze!). Bel Etage is a favorite of one of our friends' in Yerevan. I was so pleased that we had the opportunity to dine here. Honestly, it reminded me of something I'd find in New York City, and that's saying a lot.

I loved the clean lines and white color palette. It definitely felt very European in here.

The restaurant is described as being French, but I'd consider it to be more "European" as a whole. The menu swayed between French, Italian, and Spanish during our meal alone. I have no complaints. Everything was delicious, starting with the crusty bread that is baked in house. My favorite are the mini batons! They are scored too!

We also enjoyed some delicious liver pâté served with toast points and house salad. We ordered extra salad as well, which was topped with sliced mushrooms, carrots, red bell peppers and featured a balsamic dressing. Light and refreshing a great compliment to the richness of the pâté.

We also enjoyed some smoked salmon roulades that were filled with goat cheese and served with a light salad, cherry tomatoes, and lemon slices. Not only was it a very nice presentation, but the quality of the fish was great and all of the flavors were well balanced.

I also loved the mozzarella and tomato stacks, which were drizzled with balsamic vinegar and served with spoonfuls of light pesto on either side. This was a more Italian contribution to the menu.

With our meal, we also enjoyed glasses of Armenian brandy aged 20 years. Right before this meal we took a tour of an Armenian brandy factory and participated in a brandy tasting (upcoming post!), so drinking more brandy at our meal was a great way of continuing the party :)

A touch of Spain came from a serving of freshly sliced Serrano ham. It was a tasty accompaniment to our meal, as well!

Sliced to order

A sampling of all this amazing food left me thoroughly satisfied. Although I loved all the Armenian and Middle Eastern food we were eating, it was nice to step away and have something different.

We still somehow managed to save room for dessert. I couldn't resist trying their molten chocolate cake. It was executed perfectly. Totally molten. Totally awesome.

And finally, by far the happiest cappuccino I have ever had.

Thank you to the wonderful folks at Bel Etage for the amazing food and impeccable service. You made me a very happy girl (even happier than my cappuccino)!

Bel Etage
31 Strepan Zorian Street
Yerevan, Armenia
(374 10) 500751

Friday, October 26, 2012

Wicked Good Barbecue: Spatchcock Chicken and IQUE BBQ Sauce


I truly am a lover of all things barbecue. When I had the opportunity to attend the Sun BBQ Festival at Mohegan Sun earlier this summer, I jumped at the chance to try some of the nation's best. Until recently I had never tried my own hand at creating barbecue. I've grilled plenty, and done some stove-top smoking in culinary school, but I had never (until now) prepared a grill for smoking meats. For the longest time I had wanted to learn more about barbecue, and take some baby steps to become a better barbecue cook.

Chimney starter

I was all the more excited when I got the opportunity to review a new cookbook entitled Wicked Good Barbecue: Fearless Recipes from Two Damn Yankees Who Won the Biggest, Baddest BBQ Competition in the World. As the title suggests, the authors of the book, Andy Husbands and Chris Hart are not the typical Southern or Midwestern boys you may expect to excel at barbecue cookery. They are from BOSTON and they have won some of the most prestigious barbecue competitions in the world. As a proud New Englander (who spent four of the best years of her life in BOSTON at BU), I was so stoked to learn from two of my own people :)

I recently returned from a 3 week long trip to Armenia. I'll have you know that I took my copy of Wicked Good Barbecue with me on the road as reading material on my trip. I kid you not when I tell you I've never had so much fun reading a cookbook as I did flipping through the pages of this one sitting on one of those super comfy lounge chairs in Charles De Gaulle airport watching jumbo jets go by. It made me actually wish my 4 hour layover was longer.

And it's not just because the scenery was so lovely. This book is utterly fantastic! Be forewarned that it is not for novice cooks. I may not be an avid barbecuer but I do know a think or two about cooking. Regardless, if you are inspired to cook amazing barbecue, you should definitely check out this book. Some of the recipes are incredibly time-consuming. I don't expect you to necessarily whip up their 25-Step Championship Chicken the first time you open this book, even if it's the first recipe listed. But if you have the time and motivation, there isn't anything in this book that is completely unapproachable. My only complaint about the book is that I wish each recipe specified up front how long they would take to prepare from start to finish (active and inactive time), so I could easily skim and see which would be possible given certain time restraints (or how early to start a recipe).

Different styles of smokers are discussed, but most common, non-professional folks will likely turn their outdoor charcoal kettle grills into would-be smokers for the purposes of this book, and trust me, it will work just fine. Husbands and Hart have done a great job explaining everything you'd want to know about barbecue. They have not only included their award-winning recipes (such as The Ribs That Won the Jack Daniel's World Championship), but they've also included truly novel creations like their Seven-Layer Dip of Disbelief (which includes layers such as beef tartare, crab remoulade, and celery root puree among others), the $100 Meatloaf (filled with foie gras and garnished with truffle slices), and their take on poutine (BBQ Gravy Fries with Stinky Cheese Sauce). And desserts are certainly not forgotten either, with options such as Minted Molten S'mores Cake and Bacon Almond Bark with Banana Rum Mousse.


I actually decided to try several recipes from the book to compose a meal this past weekend perfect for football Sunday. We started out with the BBQ Scotch Eggs, which are comprised of soft boiled eggs, peeled and then wrapped with a mixture of sausage and maple syrup, seasoned with rub and then smoked.

This is a typical breakfast option, but I've had Scotch eggs before as appetizers and they are always enjoyable. These were truly yummy, and tasted like breakfast sausage and eggs due to the addition of maple syrup. We cut back and only used half the amount of rub the recipe asked and thought this was just enough. The recipe literally only calls for 4 ingredients, so it's an easier option (once you've made the rub, of course).

For side dishes we made some simple grilled corn (not from the book) as well as some Spicy Lexington Red Slaw. Unlike a traditional mayonnaise-based slaw, this features a cooked sauce made with hot sauce, apple cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, and chili powder. They're not kidding when they call it spicy. In the book it's included in their Wicked Pulled Pork recipe as a component for assembling sandwiches.

We made it on its own, and to be honest, I didn't love it all that much as a side dish. It was just too runny and spicy next to the other dishes. I can see how it would add a nice crunch and spice to a slightly sweet pulled pork sandwich, but even in that case, I generally prefer the cool and refreshing effect of a traditional creamy cole slaw. My brother-in-law loved this slaw, however, so it's just personal preference.

For the main event, we decided to try the Spatchcock Chicken with Top-Secret Blue Ribbon Brine along with their IQUE BBQ Sauce. These recipes aren't secrets anymore!! First of all, 25 must be a magic number for these guys because the top-secret brine contains 25 ingredients. It's a little daunting when you look at the list, but it's super easy to make, and quite frankly... it makes the best chicken we've ever had (would be great for Thanksgiving turkey too!).

Top-Secret Blue Ribbon Brine

You have to start this dish 2 days in advance to allow the chicken 12 to 24 hours to brine, then let it dry out in the fridge over night, and then to cook the birds. Even though it takes a lot of advance preparation, it's actually a very easy dish with minimal effort. It also only takes about an hour (slightly over an hour in our case) to cook, so it's faster than many other BBQ recipes.

Spatchcocked chicken (means butterflied)

The effort was 100% worth it because it yielded the juiciest, most flavorful chicken ever. Even the breast meat, which can easily overcook, literally melted in our mouths. It was truly out of this world! The next day I tried a leftover piece of chicken breast and it was still juicy and moist! We actually scaled down the recipe and made only 2 chickens instead of 3, but maintained the same amount of brine (it was just easier than cutting the recipe). The chickens were slightly larger than called for (by a pound) and so ours took a bit longer to come to temperature. Either way, they were worth the wait!

Although the chickens can easily be served plain (and like Mary Poppins, are absolutely perfect in every way), you can also serve them with BBQ sauce if desired, so we decided to give their IQUE BBQ Sauce a try. It also had a laundry list of ingredients but was wicked easy (see, I'm from New England!) to make. The recipe yields a lot, but keeps for a long time so if you plan on barbecuing regularly, or you just like drinking really good BBQ sauce out of bowl (yes, I did that... and I have pictures), your sauce won't go to waste.

It's definitely one of the best BBQ sauces I've had... the kind of sauce you want to make babies with. It's tomato and vinegar-based, giving the sauce a nice sweetness and tang with a spicy finish. I would slather this stuff on almost anything (or drink it straight from the bowl--see below). Definite two thumbs up for the sauce! (Yes, I'm wearing a New England Patriots shirt and yes they beat the Jets last Sunday. Go Pats! Woot woot!)

Spatchcock Chicken with Top-Secret Blue Ribbon Brine
Makes 10 to 12 servings
(From Wicked Good Barbecue)

3 whole, young birds, about 3 pounds each (preferably hormone and antibiotic-free, with no added water or other solutions)
Top-Secret Blue Ribbon Brine (recipe follows)
1/2 cup peanut oil
1/2 cup mild chili powder
IQUE BBQ Sauce, optional (recipe follows)
Lemon, optional

Special Equipment: 5-gallon food-grade bucket

Spatchcock the chickens. For each one, using kitchen shears, cut along each side of the backbone and remove the back. Flip the bird breast-side up and press down until the breast bone cracks.

Place the spatchcocked birds in a food-safe buckets and pour brine over so the birds are fully submerged (use plates as a weight, if necessary). Place the bucket in refrigerator and brine for 12 to 24 hours (we placed our bucket in a giant cooler filled with ice).

Remove the birds from the brine and place skin-side up on a cooling rack set over a sheet pan. Dry with paper towels and refrigerate, uncovered, overnight. The exposure to the air will dry out the birds, making for crispy skin when they cook.

Prepare smoker (we used apple wood chips) and bring heat to 350 degrees F. If using a kettle grill, build a two-zone fire, and use foil or a drip pan to keep chicken juices from dripping directly into the fire.

Rub peanut oil over the birds, then sprinkle with chili powder. There is salt in the brine, so don't use a traditional rub that has more salt in it.

Place chickens skin-side down on clean grill grates. This will help keep them moist. The skin creates a barrier, so the juices accumulate in the meat instead of dripping down into the fire. If you are using a kettle grill, place them on the cool side of the grate.

Cook for 1 hour, or until a thermometer registers 160 degrees F in the breast and 170 degrees F in the thigh. Remove from the cooker and let rest for 20 minutes, skin-side up.

To serve, baste the chicken with warm IQUE BBQ Sauce or a simple squeeze of lemon--or simply serve as-is, which is our preferred way to eat it.

Top-Secret Blue Ribbon Brine
(From Wicked Good Barbecue)

3/4 gallon spring water
1 quart low-sodium chicken broth
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup blackstrap molasses (we used regular molasses)
1 cup Italian salad dressing
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1 apple, cored and cut into quarters (do not peel)
1 orange, cut into quarters
1 lemon, cut into quarters
1 onion, peeled and cut into quarters
6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 heads roasted garlic, split in half, skin on
2 chipotle peppers (canned in adobo sauce)
3 bay leaves
8 whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons dried thyme
2 tablespoons dried sage
4 pieces candied ginger
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons chili powder

Special Equipment: 5-gallon food-grade bucket

Bring the water, broth, salt, soy sauce, brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses, salad dressing, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, vinegar, apple, orange, lemon, onion, garlic (fresh and roasted), and chipotles to a boil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Remove from heat and add the bay leaves, peppercorns, thyme, sage, ginger, cinnamon, and chili powder. Using a whisk, mix ingredients well. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes.

Pour into bucket and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate overnight. (We actually made an ice bath in the kitchen sink and cooled it that way to speed up the process and get our birds brined).

Makes about 2 quarts
(From Wicked Good Barbecue)

4 cups packed brown sugar
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon ground mustard
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons Szechuan peppercorns, freshly ground*
1 1/2 teaspoons long peppercorns, freshly ground*
1 1/2 teaspoons chipotle powder or cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon tomato powder**, optional
1/2 tablespoon hickory powder**, optional (we used liquid smoke, instead)
4 cups ketchup
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons IQUE Dry Rub (recipe follows)

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, make a gastrique by bringing the brown sugar, cider vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce to a gentle boil.

Remove from the heat and add the thyme, mustard, garlic powder, cumin, ground Szechuan peppercorns, ground long peppercorns, chipotle powder, and tomato powder and hickory powder, if using. Let sit for 15 minutes.

Stir in the ketchup and corn syrup, return to stove, and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and add IQUE Dry Rub. Let cool and store in refrigerator, preferably in squeeze bottles, for up to 1 month.

*A blend of mixed peppercorns can be substituted for the Szechuan and long peppercorns, but in our opinion the sauce won't be nearly as wicked. (We just used black peppercorns and the world didn't end, so I think you're okay).

**Tomato powder and hickory powder are available by mail order or at specialty food stores.

IQUE Dry Rub
Makes about 3 cups
(From Wicked Good Barbecue)

1 cup turbinado sugar (we used light brown sugar)
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup high-quality paprika, such as Spanish paprika
6 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons cumin seeds, freshly ground
4 teaspoons mixed peppercorns, freshly ground (we used black peppercorns)
4 teaspoons garlic granules (we used garlic powder)
3 teaspoons onion granules (we used onion powder)
2 teaspoons MSG (or Accent), optional
1 teaspoon chipotle powder

Place all ingredients in a large spice blender and pulse until it becomes a fine powder (we just mixed it by hand). Refrigerate in an airtight container. This rub will keep indefinitely, but try to use within 1 month to ensure freshest flavor.

*Disclaimer* I received no compensation to write this review other than a free copy of the book. My opinions are always my own.


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