Breast Milk Ice Cream?

Back in the Autumn, we had a television crew in our Wicklow Street shop for what was to be a new season of the RTE comedy show, Anonymous. The gag was Amanda Brunker dressed as an old biddy, giving out samples of breast milk ice cream (it was actually our Kerry Cream flavour). Fun was had by all.

Now, however, it seems less like a gag, since PR firm Taylor Herring has this post, stating that the icecreamists in Covent Garden are actually serving up the stuff. Certainly that’s bound to get some attention for them, but it wouldn’t really be my thing. However, it’s almost worth a flight over. Simply as a professional. Market research and all.

Flavours, flavours, and more…

Today’s Irish Times Magazine has a review I wrote of Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus. I met her recently in Dublin and had a great conversation about food.

Anyway, here it is (unedited version):

If you know the kind of person who might buy a piece of Gruyére on impulse only to have it stare at them balefully from the fridge when they can’t quite decide what to do with it, or perhaps someone who is a slave to their cookbooks, someone who complains that cauliflower is boring, or in fact anyone who likes their food, you could do much worse than wrap them up a copy of Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus this Christmas. It’s a book that’s taking the food world by storm, and both professional and home cooks will find plenty of inspiration inside.

Segnit has compiled 99 foods, divided them into groupings such as “Creamy Fruity,” “Earthy,” “Meaty” and “Green & Grassy,” and has created flavour pairings for all of them. Cauliflower (grouped as “Sulphurous”), for example, she describes as “broccoli that can’t be bothered… keener on the quieter life, snug under a blanket of cheese.” Pairing suggestions for cauliflower include almond, anchovy, caper, chilli, chocolate, cumin, garlic, nutmeg (apparently a favourite dish of Louis XIV), saffron, truffle, and walnut. As intimated above, it also includes hard cheese, which means you’ve just found a use for that Gruyére. The chocolate pairing sounds odd, but if it’s good enough for Heston Blumenthal, who created a chocolate and cauliflower risotto, it’s good enough for me.

If you don’t care for cauliflower, how about beef and cinnamon, pork and apricot, black pudding and mint, or even partridge and pear as an alternative to dry turkey at christmas? The last one you’ll find under the “chicken and pear” section, which is an example of the stream of consciousness quality of the book. An entry might start with pairing liver with oily fish and morph into an ode on ankimo or monkfish livers, which are a great delicacy in Japan. This is not a recipe book, although there are some recipes. It’s not even strictly a guide to ingredients that go well together, since that could be quite boring. It’s a compendium of ideas, combinations, and tidbits, penned in a very colourful style.

She describes anchovies and olives as like “a couple of shady characters knocking around the port in Nice. Loud and salty, they take a simple pizza margherita and rough it up… a detonation of brininess every few bites.” Parsley and caper are “a pair of green avengers, battling the palate-numbing tedium of fried foods. Pitch them, possibly in the form of a salsa verde, against fried aubergine slices, battered fish and crumbed escalopes.” As for peach and vanilla, “As a society lady at the turn of the twentieth century, you were nobody until you had a peach-based dessert named after you.” The lucky ones included Sarah Bernhardy (pêches aiglon), Blanche d’Antigny (coupe d’Antigny), Princess Alexandra, and Empress Eugénie, “whose eponymous dessert was further garnished with wild strawberries and served with a champagne sabayon.”

Niki Segnit started writing when she was made redundant from a high powered job in food marketing, and the idea of the book came to her when she was trying to expand her culinary horizons. She explains that her grandmother didn’t have any cookery books, her mother only had a couple, and that Niki herself couldn’t cook without them. It’s the transformation of cooking using inherited skills based upon a deep understanding of limited ingredients and a limited repertoire, to our current limitless cookery options. With ingredients readily available in our shops, we could readily cook up Thai curried fish, saag paneer or saltimbocca for tonight’s dinner, but we don’t have the traditional knowledge and skills that would have come growing up with those dishes.

“We’ve become ‘Jack of all trades’ in the kitchen,” she says, “with an increasingly wide repertoire. That means, however, that I was entirely dependent on my cookbooks. How could I even begin to think about substituting flavours?”

For Segnit, becoming a creative cook and liberating herself from increasingly creased and food-spattered books meant exploring the concept of culinary fusion. The playfulness and joy she found visiting molecular gastronomy restaurants epitomised the opposite of cooking as drudgery, and she started looking for books that gave a list of interesting flavour combinations. There weren’t any, so she started writing one. She says the book was really composed for herself, with the idea that if she could extrapolate food from the recipe context she could get her brain working and reclaim cooking as her own. Believing that most of us don’t use the sense of taste to its full potential, she wanted to build a library of tastes in her head, tastes that could help unleash creative cooking.

The Flavour Thesaurus will no doubt encourage thousands of cooks to push the boundaries of their cooking and explore new dishes. It is a welcome addition to the age-old conversation on improving the taste of the foods we eat, and it’s quite hard to dip into these pages and come out without salivating. Did you know, for example, that in Scandinavia and Baltic countries, beetroot is commonly paired with salty fish? “The fish and beetroot are mixed with onion, potato and apple and dressed with vinegar or maybe a mustardy mayonnaise. The dish is called sillsallad in Sweden and rosolje in Estonia.” Not your thing? How about coffee and black currant or rosemary and rhubarb? What are you waiting for? Get cooking!

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Happy Hunting, Ivan

Today, Ivan, the ice cream dog, passed away. He was a huge part of our lives, especially Sean & Wiebke, Conor & Una. Ivan was a big part of Murphys Ice Cream as well, because in the early days he lay across the doorway of our Dingle shop, keeping an eye on us and forcing customers to stumble over him to come in for an ice cream or coffee. They didn’t seem to mind, and he made a big impression.

Ivan has been sick for a while and by the end could barely lift his head or recognise me. That’s not how I will remember him, though. I’ll remember Ivan for the majestic dog he was, chasing sticks on Ventry beach and holding court on Strand Street, convincing tourists he hadn’t been fed in a month and deserved the last few bites of their cones.

RIP. We’ll miss you terribly!

Sweet Taste of the Sea

I wrote this for today’s Irish Times magazine, with the sea salt and sea salt ice cream recipes:

WHEN IT COMES to summer, at least in memory, the days are sunny, lazy and worry-free. This year, we have already had so many sunny days that it feels like a real summer, and it’s triggering memories that have been dormant these past few years. There’s the smell of pollen, cut grass and barbecue smoke on clothes, the tired buzz of insects overwhelmed by abundance, music outdoors, ripples of contented laughter, the slipperiness of suntan lotion, the heat of the skin after a day at the beach, and the softness of truly ripe fruit. The senses awaken.

Of summer tastes, the first that comes to my mind is salt. It’s the salt of sweat, but even more so the salt of the sea; salt dried on the lips and flavouring everything consumed post-beach. We are lucky here in Ireland that the sea is never too far away that we can’t reach it when a day off coincides with sunshine. I am lucky living in Dingle, when even on a busy day I can escape to Bín Bán or Doonshean for a quick, cold dip and return to work within the hour, revived, with feet sandy in my shoes and a thin shield of salt on my skin.

Salt, in moderation, is not only tasty, but it is a vital component of our bodies. We need it to regulate our fluid content, especially in summer, and perhaps that’s what makes salt a slightly primeval experience. John F Kennedy, at the America Cup race in 1962, said: “All of us have, in our veins, the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came.”

I find it strange that most of us give salt so little thought, especially since it is a staple of the kitchen. It’s so varied, and so easy to make if you have access to the sea. Try it. When you’re leaving the beach this summer, fill up your empty water bottles with sea water after you pack away your towels, trowels and that weighty tome you’ve put off reading all year. A litre of seawater should make 40 grams of salt. You’ll find that it’s more complex and more interesting in flavour than anything you can buy in a shop. It will give you a lingering taste of your holiday and a great conversation piece at a dinner party.

If You’re Going to Binge, Choose Ice Cream

At 3:30 am, on Sunday morning, my partner woke me with a terrified whisper – “There’s a man in the house!”

My first thought was that we were being robbed, and (after checking that little Róisín was safely asleep) I pretended to ring the Gardai (my phone was charging downstairs), telling them in a very loud voice to come around. There wasn’t any sound downstairs, so I  went to the stop of the stairs, switching on the light. There, looking up at me, was a big man, perhaps in his late 30s.

What struck me, with a surge of adrenaline, is how lives could be changed with such a moment. If I hit him and he fell and hit his head, I’d be in serious trouble. If he had a knife, I’d be in serious trouble. Either way, things wouldn’t turn out well. It was soon apparent, however, that he was drunk to the point of hardly being able to speak. That made his being in the house less sinister, but still I had no way of knowing whether or not he was a violent or a gentle drunk. I bundled him out the back door and locked it.

I rang the Gardai in Tralee (Dingle Gardai go off duty at 3:00 am), and they told me once he was outside there shouldn’t be a problem. I’m guessing they had more serious matters to deal with on a Saturday night. Meanwhile, outside, the man started taking off his clothes, and he kept trying to open the door (although not in a violent manner).

Worried that he’d die of exposure or fall and hit his head, I went outside. Again, he didn’t seem violent, but he was so drunk that it was hard to know what he would do. I told him this wasn’t his house, helped him into his clothes, and brought him to the front of the house. I asked him where he lived or where he was staying, for I would have walked him home, but he couldn’t tell me. I asked him if there was someone we could ring, but he shook his head. All he said was, “My wife will kill me.” Finally, he stumbled off down the street toward town.

We had trouble falling back to sleep, but in the scheme of things, we were quite aware that although shocking to have someone come into the house, no harm had been done. I had forgotten to lock the front door, and my partner made me promise I wouldn’t forget again.

The episode made me think about Ireland and drink. Although per capita drinking has fallen in Ireland, we still top the table in terms of binge drinking. It’s the latter that landed the fellow into our house and has been the cause of so many problems with fights, with full accident and emergency wards and heartache for friends and family. We still don’t take binge drinking seriously as a nation, and a great number of people don’t think it’s a problem at all.

I think it’s a problem, and I’ve thought that for a while. I don’t have any answers, and I’m not going to make any campaign on the issue. I’m not prudish about drinking, and in fact had been to the pub myself the same evening for a couple of pints and some conversation. A couple of pints, however, is a very different thing from drinking yourself into a state where you don’t even know where you live.

Besides making me understand the preciousness of one’s family and how much we need the feeling of safety in our homes, the man in our house also helped to clarify thoughts about our own shops.

We’ve talked before about whether we should get a wine license or how cool it would be to serve alcohol over ice cream (vanilla with a shot of Bailey’s, etc). I think now that I’m very happy that we have a safe, alcohol-free, family environment. We’re not going to change anything about Ireland’s difficult relationship with drinking, but I feel good that we can offer a little alternative world, where the only binge will be an overindulgence of ice cream, chocolate or coffee.

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Irish Times: Milk Article

Here’s my article from today’s Irish Times Magazine:

If the Lord delight in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land which floweth with milk and honey. – Numbers, 14:8

In the townland of Tobar na Múdán, just outside Dingle, darkness envelopes everything. Hidden is the view from the reeds and waters of the Short Strand to the dramatic heights of Sliabh Mhacha Ré, for the only light filters out the door of Colm Murphy’s milking parlour. With their black coats, his little Kerry cows are invisible in the yard, and the white markings of the larger Friesians appear as disembodied splotches. It’s early – birds haven’t yet found their voice, and the profound silence outside is hardly disturbed by the gentle shifting feet of the cattle, the soft rhythm of their breathing, and the muted “chuck, chuck, chuck” of the milking machine.

Colm shows me how it’s done – how to open the gate to let in the cattle, how to tie the safety chain behind them once they clamber onto the milking platform, and how to attach the cups to the udders. He has the easy, economical movements of someone with years experience and is gracious enough not to mind me slowing things down. The cows, more interested in their morning treat, don’t take much notice of my fumblings. Milk starts flowing into the tank, and Colm tells me about each cow – this one lost a calf, this one is quite old, and this one might kick if you’re not careful. Soon enough the cows are dry, and we release them to make room for the next batch.

There is nothing glamourous about milking, especially on a dark, damp, cold morning. However, it’s deeply comforting. Perhaps it’s being surrounded by such large and gentle beasts. Perhaps it’s the rhythm of it. Perhaps it’s that we’ve been milking for thousands of years and the process feels timeless. For cows are intertwined with Ireland’s history. We can see it in our place names – “Múdán” in Colm’s townland refers to the inside of a cow’s horn. We can find a cow in Drumshambo, Ardboe, Inishbofin, Lough Bo, and Boyne (from Bóinne, Boann, or Bovinda – the goddess of the white cow). The road that might take you to those places, “thar,” is defined in width by the length and breadth of a cow.

Our legendary epic, the Táin Bó Cúailinge (about a cattle raid), is a part of Lebor na hUidre, the Book of the Dun Cow, the oldest extant Irish manuscript. We can go back further, however. Old Croghan Man’s last meal included buttermilk (and milk might have caused his death – a possible ritual sacrifice to ensure the supply of milk and corn to his people). We can go back further still, since scientists radio carbon-dated a cow bone found in a dig at Ferriter’s Cove in Kerry to 4500 BC. Considering that humans probably consumed their first cow milk in the Near East between 5,000 and 7,000 BC, when they developed the enzyme needed to digest it, it seems us Irish were early adopters when it came to this new food source.

And adopt it we did. Cows featured in Irish society, from birth to death. As a newborn, St. Brigid (known as ”Brigid of the Kine” – cows) was bathed in milk, as would have been usual; only the poor bathed their babies in water. Boys tended the cows (our Irish word for boy, “buachaill,” comes from “cowherd”), and women milked them. Cows made up all or part of a bride price, poets charged for their work in cows, cows were guarded jealously and raided mercilessly, and when chieftains fell in battle (often on a “creach” or cattle raid), their cows joined the mourners following the coffin to its final resting place. The Annals of Ulster, along with other references, speak of a tradition of calves taken away from their mothers upon a death, so that their hungry cries amplified the keening mourners.

Professor A. T. Lucas, in his book Cattle in Ancient Ireland, says, “It must be emphasized that these thousands of allusions (in Irish manuscripts) are not to cattle in general but specifically to cows and more specifically to cows as yielders of milk. There are no beef-eating heroes in Irish literature; the doughtiest Irish warriors relied on pig-meat for their intake of protein.” Milk provided food, and it also provided strength. In 1596, Sir George Carew reported back to England that the Irish were too powerful in the summertime, when they lived “upon the milk and butter of their kine,” and recommended that would-be invaders wait until the milk-less winter months to attack.

So, how is it that the milk cow, once the highest unit of currency under Brehon law, has little value these days? According to local folklorist T. P. O’Conchuir, the Dingle creamery paid farmers the equivalent of 15c a gallon in the 1960’s. A gallon of milk sold in the shop, ladled out in pint measures with a splash thrown in for the cat, was 30c. A pint of Guinness was 15c, and pints have kept a fairly constant ratio to wages over time. By that measure, we now pay around half what we once did for milk, and farmers receive a quarter. Why? I can’t believe it’s about quality, since I have never tasted milk as good as we have here in Ireland. It seems, like many Irish foods, that milk has become a commodity, something taken for granted.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that for most people milk is no longer a local affair. It’s big business. According to the National Dairy Council, the domestic Irish dairy market is valued at €1 billion, and the foreign market is an additional €2.36 billion or 27% of our entire food and drink exports. This supports 22,000 farmers, who produce over 5 billion litres of milk annually. These are huge figures, but they wouldn’t impress many farmers. Their numbers have fallen from 68,000 in 1984, and more will leave their land now that milk prices have collapsed to unsustainable levels. Jackie Cahill of ICSMA points out that the average cost of producing a litre of milk is 23c, excluding labour, and that most processors pay out a similar figure, leaving farmers with no income whatsoever.

MEP Mairead McGuinness, who serves on the European Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, says farmers are facing the cold economic reality of global markets. European measures will help a bit to ease the current milk crisis, but she sees a future for only some Irish dairy famers, those who “get their cost base in order.” She does, however, point out that milk in Ireland is divided between the milk we drink at home and agribusiness products. We can work on adding value for the former, looking at organics and other niches, but the latter is simply about price. The question is, given the inherent disadvantages of being a small island with relatively small farms, can we compete on price at all? Or, with all the cost cutting, will we lose the very quality that makes Irish milk so special?

On a visit last year to Tokyo, I noticed a statue of a huge black and white cow in swanky Roppongi Hills. On closer inspection, it fronted the Motoyama Milk Bar, a cafe quite comfortable with its surroundings of extreme high fashion and Michelin star restaurants. Inside, you can drink a small glass of unhomogenised milk, from a traditional farm in Hokkaido, for €3.50, or you could sample their other dairy snacks. Japan is not unique; milk bars are popping up around Asia and beyond. A rockabilly version has opened in Berlin. In New York City, at the Momofuku Milk Bar in Greenwich Village, my brother recently handed over more than $10 for a glass of cornflake flavoured milk and a cookie. He also found Ronnybrook Farm’s cafe in the Meatpacking District, where you can buy a pint of milk to take away for $3.

While I don’t think milk bars are the answers to the woes of Irish dairy farmers, I do think it’s interesting that milk has such high value in some of the world’s trendiest urban centres. To me this means there are still opportunities for farmers, and since nine out of ten of them upgraded their facilities last year, investing on average a year’s income in their operations, there is clearly a huge will to survive. Some have focused on efficiency and others are looking at new ways to increase their incomes. Irish farmers have a long tradition of making cheese, and they are now also churning out clotted cream, buttermilk, ice cream (we have a veritable glut of ice cream makers at the moment) and many other milk-based foods. Some are even going back to the practise of selling milk themselves.

In Mullingar, Gerry and Mary Kelly bottle their own, and their Moon Shine Dairy milk took home the top prize at the 2009 National Organic Awards. They are also the reigning “New Cheese” champions at the British Cheese Awards. I drank their milk recently amidst the bustle of the Dublin Food Coop in the Liberties and found it surprisingly light and beautifully smooth. The Kellys decided on organic certification in 1999 as a way of adding value so that they could continue farming, and they started selling their own products in 2006. They use biodynamic methods, although they are not Demeter certified, and treat their Ayreshire herd with herb’s, homeopathy and flower essences. Mary has just a completed Level 1 Bach remedy course and hopes to be a trained practitioner for animals by the end of this year.

“It’s a bit demoralising to see a litre of water dearer than a litre of milk,” she said, when I asked her how the business was going, “but we are still here. One has to integrate and juggle sales, paperwork, trade events and parenting. I’m a great believer that when you still yourself, your inner voice has something to say. That helps great deal.”

Of course it wouldn’t make sense for every dairy farmer to start bottling milk. It would, however, make a lot of sense for farmers to start thinking about how they can work with their local dairies to add value. We as a nation need to think about how we can elevate the perception of Irish food, both at home and abroad, to reflect its excellence. Vincent Cleary of Glenisk Ltd., believes Ireland is uniquely positioned to be the natural home of good food in a global context and strongly advises all farmers to look at the organic option. He pays his farmers a top price for milk and says as long as farmers watch their inputs, manage their grassland, farm in as environmentally friendly a manner as possible and comply with legislation, the future for organic milk production is bright.

Back at Colm Murphy’s farm, we’re almost done with the milking. The sky has brightened, and the green fields and old stone walls take shape around us as we release the last few cows back into the yard and visit the new calves. One, a skinny creature with huge eyes, latches onto the end of the bottle of fresh, warm milk I’m holding, and suckles away. Colm, a bottle in each hand, manages two calves at once, and he says he loves being a part of the natural cycles of life; the microcosm that is his farm. He says he is a sex therapist, midwife, vet, bookkeeper, handyman, manager, driver, purchasing officer, and cook, depending on the time of year or the time of day. I’m relieved to hear the last, because I’m hungry and ready for breakfast. Colm has put aside a bucket of delicious, raw Irish milk. As soon as we’re done, we’ll drink it.

You can read the on-line version here.

Cattle in Ancient Ireland

I’ve been working on an article on milk, which I think will be in next week’s Irish Times magazine. I did a fair bit of research, including reading a fascinating book, Cattle in Ancient Ireland, by A.T. Lucas. It’s amazing how intertwined milk cows are with Irish history, and our literature and historical tracts are full of cows. Professor Lucas writes, “It must be emphasised that these thousand of allusions (in ancient literature) are not to cattle in general but specifically to cows and more specifically to cows as yielders of milk. There are no beef-eating heroes in Irish literature; the doughtiest Irish warriors relied on pig-meat for their intake of protein.”

The importance of both cows and milk in Ireland is the basis for the article, along with my belief that we have the best milk in the world. Since there were far too many interesting tidbits in the book (and that was only one part of my research!) for a relatively short piece, I thought I’d put some of it here.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Cows and Ancient Ireland

1. The milk cow was the highest unit of currency under Brehon law, and Lucas writes, “The cow was the measure of everything: it was the unit of value; the ultimate in poverty was the man with only one cow; the wealth of the richest consisted of vast herds of them.”

2. There was a practise of bathing new-born infants in milk. St. Brigid was the daughter of a bondsmaid, and her mother was sent out to get milk, then “the maidservants washed St. Brigid with the milk that was still in her mother’s hand.”

In 1171, Henry II arrived in Ireland and insisted on reforms including that babies be baptised in churches. From the Chronicle of the Reign of Henry II: “For it was formally the custom in various parts of Ireland that immediately a child was born, the father or some other person immersed it three times in water and, if it was the child of a rich man, he immersed it three times in milk.” There us no suggestion that this bathing was a Christian baptismal rite.

3. It seems there was a tradition of not letting the calves go to their mothers after the death of an important person, so that they, missing their mother, joined in the keening, or wailing. In Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, describing the death of Brian Boru’s brother, it states: “Calves are not suffered to go to the cows, in lamentation for the noble Mathgamhain.”

From the Annals of Ulster, under 737: “Cernach, son of Fogartach, is treacherously slain by his own wicked associates, whom the calves of the cows, and the women of this lower world in long continued sadness bewailed.”

4. Buachaill, the Irish word for boy, comes from cowherd.

5. It was believed that a cow deprived of her calf would retain her milk. There are many stories about calves being separated and what had to be done to get the mother to give milk (in one miracle, the wolf who killed a calf allows the cow to lick it as she would her calf, at which point the cow gives milk). So, much of dairying had to do with keep the calf close by and yet not letting it drink all the milk. Stuffed calf skins were used later on.

6. There was a strange tradition, recorded on the Iveragh Peninsula, that when cows became ill after calving (reducing their milk), women blew three puffs of their breath into the cow’s vaginia as a therapeutic treatment. This is echoed in Herodotus talking of the Scythians: “…they insert a tube made of bone and shaped like a flute into the mare’s genitals… and while one blows, another milks.” It’s also echoed in Al0’Ubaid, from 2500BC, where milkers are shown in profile sitting behind the cows with their mouths adjacent to the genital region of the animals.

7. Cattle were brought to burials. There is a reference in Annals of Connacht to Domhnall O Conchobhair, who was killed in 1307 and buried at Boyle Abbey, Co. Roscommon: “He was taken to the Curlieu hills, and never in that age was there brought with any corpse so many droves and flocks of cattle and companies of horse and food and mercenaries as we brough with him to his burial.”

8. Cows not only defined wealth, but they were used as currency. They made up all or part of a bride-price. When a king of Tara married the daughter of the King of Offaly, he promised four score cows, two score at once, and two score not later than the next May Day.

9. Poets charged for their work in cows. The law tract Uraicecht Becc details the payments due to various grades of poets for their poems, ranging from one cow to ten cows (which tells you how valuable poems were at the time!).

10. Cattle raiding was common place. After all, our great epic, The Tain, is about a cattle raid. Creach, a word said to have originally meant marking or branding, is used as a reference to both the raid itself and for the intended prey.

Oisin, lamenting the quiet life says:

No courting or hunting, the two crafts we looked forward to
no fighting no raiding, no learning of athletic feats.

Gan bheit ag suirghe ag seilg
in dá cheird le a raibhe ar súil
gan deabaidh gan denamh creach
gan beith ag foghluim cleas luith.

Even the saints shared the plunder of raids. St. Caillin of Fenagh is depicted as insisting on a fat cow from every prey from each son of a king and chieftain.

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