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About Olive Oil

“What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil and what makes it better than plain old Olive Oil?”

An excellent place to start! “Extra Virgin” is a grade of olive oil, just as AA is a grade for eggs. This legal standard was defined by a group called the International Olive Council (IOC). To be “Extra Virgin” an olive oil must be made solely from olives and entirely by mechanical means—no solvents or chemicals. The olive oil must be processed without high heat; temperatures should be below 86° F. The free fatty acid level of the olive oil must be less than 0.8%. Also simply called the acidity, this is a measure of the freshness and quality of the olives that were used. The peroxide value of the oil must be < 20 meq/kg. This is a measure of oxidation, and a high peroxide value indicates that an olive oil will become rancid more quickly. There are some other chemical parameters used by the IOC, primarily indicating shelf life and to detect adulteration, but the free acidity and peroxide value are the biggies. Finally, in order to be “Extra Virgin,” an olive oil can have no flavor defects and must have some olive fruitiness when tasted by a trained, recognized taste panel. This means that there can be no rancidity, fermented flavors or any other off notes in an olive oil for it to be true extra virgin.

“So it’s a good thing the International Olive Council is on the job assuring quality for American consumers, right?”

Uh, wrong. The US is not part of the IOC. Recently, California and Connecticut both passed laws adopting the IOC standards, but enforcement is another issue. In the past, the term “extra virgin” could be used with impunity by any olive oil merchant regardless of the real grade of the oil (as long as it was made from olives). The US has been a dumping ground for low-quality olive oil for years. The majority of the imported “extra virgin” olive oil on US supermarket shelves could not be sold as extra virgin in Europe, because it isn’t really extra virgin grade. Hopefully this will change soon with the new laws on the books and enforcement in the wings.

“I always buy “Extra Light Olive Oil” – isn’t that better for me (less fat and calories)?” 

In our dreams. Notice that a few years ago the words “in flavor” materialized next to “extra light.” So the only thing you are getting less of is flavor. Calories and fat are the same. Even worse is the truth behind Extra Light in Flavor olive oil: it is primarily refined olive oil that has been flavored with a little bit of extra virgin. So you are paying a lot for refined olive oil.

“What is refined olive oil?” 

If you make olive oil from funky rotten olives you get a low-quality olive oil referred to as lampante (originally the grade used for burning in lamps). It tastes absolutely awful, so it is made palatable by refining. All the flavor, odor and color are removed in an industrial process and you are left with refined olive oil. (The gasoline in your car is "refined" too!) When some extra virgin is added to this refined oil for flavoring, you get a product called “Pure Olive Oil” or just “Olive Oil.” Add just a tiny bit of that extra virgin and you have “Light (in Flavor) Olive Oil.” For reference, you should be aware that virtually every vegetable oil on the market is refined: sunflower, safflower, rapeseed (aka canola), corn, soy. Extra virgin olive oil is a rare oil because it is so natural and unmanipulated.

“I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I like the way Light Olive Oil tastes.”

 You are not alone. A lot of people like the fact that Light olive oil isn’t too strong. But instead of an industrial product like refined olive oil, look for a fresh mild extra virgin in all its natural glory. There are many olive oils that have delicate flavor profiles—perfect for someone who is just discovering this fabulous food. Remember also that refining removes the polyphenols, tocopherol and other compounds are that are part of what makes olive oil so good for you. Light Olive Oil makes an excellent furniture polish, by the way, and is good for revitalizing leather….

“What does ‘First Cold Press’ mean?”

In today’s olive oil world, “first cold press” is meaningless. Almost all olive oil is now produced using a centrifugal decanter, not a press at all, and it is a good thing. A centrifuge is faster and cleaner, allowing the production of the highest quality olive oil. For historical perspective, the term originates from the fact that in the old days there was a first cold press that squeezed out the first run oil. That left quite a lot of oil in the waste material (olive pomace), so there was a second hot press. That involved letting the olive pomace rot for a while to loosen the remaining oil, then mixing it with hot water and squeezing it again. Yum. Nowadays that happens at a refinery where they make olive pomace oil.

“I always buy Olive Oil that says, ‘Product of Italy’ on the label – it must be the good stuff, right?”

Uhhhh, no. The actual origin of the olive oil in these bottles now appears, so it is kind of fun. Look at the front it says “Product of Italy.” Look at the back and it says “May contain olive oil from Spain, Italy, Greece and/or Tunisia.” The best guarantee that you have a genuine product is to know the producer and have confidence in them. There is a system of guaranteed origins in place in the EU, the DOPs of Italy, the DOs of Spain; these give you an assurance that the oil originates in a particular region. “California” olive oil, on the other hand, does have real meaning in California law; if you say it is from California, it must be 100% California olive oil, produced from 100% olives.

“I keep my olive oil right next to the stove so that I remember to use it. Isn’t that a good idea?”

Try tying a string around your finger instead. Olive oil has four enemies: air, light, heat and time. Keeping olive oil next to the stove – a bright, warm place – will pretty well assure that it becomes rancid quickly. If it is in a clear bottle or decanter, that is much worse. Store olive oil in a cool dark place, tightly closed. And use it. Olive oil, unlike red wine, does not improve with age. Don’t hoard it or save it; use it. Figure that an olive oil is at its best for about a year after it is made. There is a lot of variability: very strong, early harvest oils can last longer, and delicate late harvest oils will taste tired after a year. This is because the polyphenols in olive oil are antioxidants. High polyphenol oils are naturally more resistant to oxidation than lower polyphenol olive oils. But all olive oils are better when they are fresh, so use them up!

 Olive oil attributes

The sensory evaluation of olive oil follows defined standards developed to determine the quality of an oil. The fact that there are more negative attributes than positive attributes reflects the importance of weeding out defective oils. The positive attribute “fruity” includes an entire world of olive oil flavor nuance and individuality; it is here that more descriptive detail paints a fuller picture of an olive oil. In 2007, the International Oil Council (IOC) added some additional descriptors for labeling purposes; these terms add more detail to the positive side of the evaluation equation.

The primary defects of olive oil

Fusty/Muddy Sediment – Characteristic flavor of oil obtained from olives stored in piles which have undergone an advanced stage of anaerobic fermentation. This flavor can also be obtained when oil has been left in contact with sediment which has settled in the bottom of underground tanks and vats which has also undergone a process of anaerobic fermentation.

Musty – Characteristic flavor of oil obtained from olives in which large numbers of fungi and yeasts have developed as a result of its being stored in humid conditions for several days.

Winey/Vinegary – Characteristic flavor of certain oil reminiscent of wine or vinegar. This flavor is mainly caused by a process of aerobic fermentation within the olives or in the olive paste left on pressing mats which have not been properly cleaned. This leads to the formation of acetic acid, ethyl acetate and ethanol.

Wet Wood/Frozen – Characteristic flavor of oil extracted from olives which have been injured by frost while still on the tree.

Rancid – Flavor of oil which has undergone a process of oxidation. 

The positive attributes of olive oil

Fruity – Characteristic taste of oil which depends on the variety and comes from sound, fresh olives, either ripe or unripe.

Bitter – Characteristic taste of oil obtained from green olives or olives turning color.

Pungent – Biting tactile sensation characteristic of oils produced at the start of the crop year, primarily from olives that are still unripe. This is commonly described as being “peppery”.

Optional terminology for labeling purposes from the IOC: 

Greenly fruity – Set of olfactory sensations characteristic of the oil which is reminiscent of green fruit, depends on the variety of olive and comes from green, sound, fresh olives.

Ripely fruity – Set of olfactory sensations characteristic of the oil which is reminiscent of ripe fruit, depends on the variety of olive and comes from sound, fresh olives, green or ripe.

Well-balanced – Oil which does not display a lack of balance, by which is meant the bitterness, pungency and fruitiness are all in harmony with the fruitiness being dominant.

Mild oil – Oil in which the bitter and pungent flavors are slight or not present. 

What makes an olive oil taste the way it does?

There are two major influences on the character of an olive oil: variety and maturity. There are other influences as well, such as climate, irrigation and processing method, but these usually have a lesser impact.

Olives can be harvested for oil at a wide range of ripeness, from completely green to completely black. (It should be mentioned here that all varieties of olives start off green and eventually turn black.) When a green olive is pressed for oil it will generally yield oil with a higher level of bitterness and pungency. This is because the polyphenol content of an olive decreases as it continues to ripen on the tree. Polyphenols are the compounds that contribute the bitterness and pungency to the olive oil and also provide many of the health benefits. The antioxidant properties of the polyphenols explain why greener harvest oils have a longer shelf life than ripe harvest oils; the natural antioxidants slow the onset of rancidity in early harvest oils.

One of the trickiest parts of making a great olive oil is timing the harvest. Harvest too early and you can have oil that is aggressively bitter and overwhelming. Harvest too late and you may produce a bland oil that lacks character and will become rancid in a short time. A good producer knows his or her varieties and harvests them at the peak point to make the most of that cultivar’s qualities.

Maturity is not the only determinant of polyphenol content. Different olive varieties have different polyphenol concentrations. Some varieties, like Coratina and Picual, are naturally high in polyphenols, other varieties, like Arbequina, are intrinsically lower.

 

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Health Information 

Fad diets

Are you tired of weird fad diets yet? Seems like there is a new one every few months, each with its’ own set of extreme guidelines. Human beings are attracted by novelty, it is true; which is why the diet book market is perennial. Hopefully we are also guided by common sense, practicality and intuition.

Regardless if you like fad diets or dislike fad diets, you could always think of the Mediterranean diet as a many thousand-year-old fad that just won’t quit.

The Mediterranean diet is characterized by high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, fish, seafood and cereals with a low intake of meat and meat products and dairy products. It also features a high ratio of mono-unsaturated to saturated fats, with olive oil being the primary fat in the diet.

A very important part of the Mediterranean diet is the high intake of vegetables. It can be argued that this is closely linked to olive oil for a simple reason: vegetables cooked with olive oil taste so good that no one has a problem eating healthy amounts. It is not uncommon to have a minor squabble over who will get the last of the Kale with Olive Oil and Garlic!

Olive oil: a good fat

Hopefully we are all over the idea that dietary fat is always bad. So very not true. Some dietary fats do seem to be bad—trans-fats for example. Good fats are a critical part of our diet, so we should seek out healthy fats that will benefit our health. Watching the overall amount of fat in our diets is still important, so we need to substitute healthy fats for other fats, not simply add good fats on top of the bad fats. It is also important to remember that we are human beings, not chemistry sets, so we want to find healthy things that taste good!

Olive oil is primarily mono-unsaturated fat, the healthiest fat for your heart. It has also been shown to raise protective HDL (the “good” cholesterol) and lower LDL (the “bad” cholesterol). The health benefits of olive oil don’t stop with the mono-unsaturated fat, however. Extra virgin olive oil has additional health benefits due to the polyphenols, tocopherols, plant sterols and other things present in this fresh, unrefined product. Refined olive oils have virtually none of these other chemicals.

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Olive Varieties

Arbequina

This Spanish variety is currently the most planted olive in California. It is the mainstay of the super-high-density olive production system, a method that allows a high degree of mechanization while harvesting the olives. Arbequina produces a mild, fruity oil, characterized by almond and tropical notes when it is ripe. Harvested greener, it is grassy, with a little pungency but usually has minimal bitterness. Traditional style Spanish Arbequina is very fruity, ripe and soft. 

Arbosana

This variety is grown in the super-high-density system in California (see Arbequina). It is Spanish in origin, but rarely seen there as a single varietal oil. It is becoming more popular in California for its bright herbaceous profile.

Ascolano (Or Ascolana)

Traditionally grown for table olives, this variety is used to make oil as well. It has an apricot/stone fruit flavor that is very distinctive. The ripe oil has a strongly tropical note. This variety originated in Italy.

Frantoio

This is one of the main varieties in most Tuscan blends. It is a central Italian variety that yields exceptionally fine fruity oil. The ideal harvest is about halfway between ripe and green, giving it a green, grassy and artichoke quality with floral and nutty undertones and excellent balance of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. 

Koroneiki

This Greek variety is the third olive found in super-high-density production. It is highly prized for its extremely aromatic oil. It has a distinctive varietal note reminiscent of banana, green or ripe, depending on the maturity of the olives.

Leccino

This is another one of the varieties found in a Tuscan blend. This central Italian variety produces a sweet, delicate oil with a cinnamon-spice note. It can be harvested quite green for a bright, peppery flavor profile. 

Manzanillo

This is the dominant table olive in California. However, it is also being used to make olive oil in styles ranging from very green to very ripe. This variety is from Spain, and is widely planted worldwide for table olive production. 

Mission

California’s “native” olive. The Mission olive can be used to make either an early harvest or late harvest style oil, or something in between. The greener style will have piney, herbaceous notes with distinct pungency and bitterness. The ripe style Missions tend to be very round and buttery, with tropical/pineapple flavors. 

Sevillano

This Spanish variety is best known for its role in the bottom of a Martini glass. Although predominantly used for pickling, it makes a superb olive oil with a very characteristic flavor of grassy and herbaceous notes. 

Taggiasca

This northern Italian variety has recently garnered a lot of attention in the California premium olive oil world. The traditional Italian oil from this variety is a late harvest, very delicate style. The California Taggiascas tend to be earlier harvest and have a much more complex and assertive profile. It is grassy, floral and well-balanced. 

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Olive Oil Production

How is olive oil made?

Making olive oil is a simple process. The oil inside a well cared for, undamaged, just-right olive on the tree is perfect; all the olive oil mill needs to do is get the oil out of the olive without messing it up. It’s not as easy as it sounds – like most simple things there is a lot of finesse involved—but the fundamentals are not complicated. 

Great olive oil starts with great fruit

Time is of the essence when you are making high quality olive oil. The minute an olive leaves the tree, it begins to deteriorate. The best olive oil is made within hours of harvest. As olives sit, they begin to undergo anaerobic fermentation—that is fermentation in the absence of oxygen. They will start to heat up, just like a compost pile, and the resulting breakdown of the fruit leads to higher free acidity in the oil and defective fusty flavors.

Harvest

Olives can be harvested in many ways, and all of them can yield excellent olive oil if the fruit is processed immediately. Hand harvest is the oldest and most expensive method. The olives can be picked into buckets, raked or beaten onto tarps, or rattled and shaken with various handheld machines to get them off the tree onto collecting nets. Larger machines that shake the trunks of the trees, or the canopy, are used extensively all over the world. There are also over-the-row machines that use a row of bars to beat the sides of the trees and dislodge the fruit into a collector.

Despite occasional romantic advertising copy to the contrary, first rate olive oil can be made from mechanically harvested fruit. In fact, there is an advantage to machines since they are so much faster and allow the fruit to be processed within a very short time of harvest. The down side of machines, beater-bar types in particular, is that some of them can bruise the fruit. This is not a major concern if the fruit is going to be processed within hours of harvest; the processing involves considerably more trauma to the olives than just bruising (it grinds them to a pulp, to be specific). 

Olive Harvest

Grinding

Once the olives are harvested they must be rushed to the mill. Really rushed. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Speedy processing is essential for making good olive oil; the sooner you mill, the less the fruit will deteriorate. At the mill, leaves and sticks are removed from the olives, and the fruit is washed. From the washer it goes to a grinder that creates a paste. 

There are different methods of grinding. The most common by far is the hammer mill. It is fast, continuous, easy to clean and produces oil with a lot of character. Stone mills, the standard for most of history, are still used by some producers. Stone milling is less efficient because the olives must be milled in batches, there is more oxidation because the paste is exposed to the air for an extended period and stone mills are harder to clean thoroughly. Stone grinding results in a coarser paste and less bitterness in the oil. This can be helpful when milling certain varieties, but most producers opt for the greater flavor extraction and efficiency of hammer mills. Another option that is growing in popularity is the disk mill. A disk mill can produce paste that is more similar to a stone mill’s in texture, but it is continuous, easy to clean and results in less oxidation.

Olive Crushing

 

Malaxation 

From the grinder, the paste goes into a tank for malaxation. In malaxation, the olive paste is stirred slowly with paddles to help reverse the homogenization that takes place during grinding. The small droplets of oil are coaxed together into larger droplets to help the separation process. Malaxation usually takes from 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the character of the paste.

Malaxation Process

Separation

From the malaxation tank, the olive paste is pumped to the decanter. A centrifugal decanter is the standard method of separating the olive oil from everything else—fruit water, pit fragments and pulp. The traditional method of separation was a press that used mats (imagine a round placemat with a hole in the middle), spread with olive paste and squeezed to release the oil and water. The solids stayed behind on the mats. The problem with this picturesque method is that a mat, even one made from a man-made material, is about as easy to clean as an oil and olive paste-saturated carpet, which often times leads to contamination of the oil. Cleanliness is everything in olive oil processing, so the use of mats introduces an unwelcome opportunity for defects to get into the oil.

 

Decanter

In a decanter, separation that takes hours with just gravity is done in seconds. The olive paste is spun at high speeds to separate the different parts: solids (heaviest), fruit water and olive oil (lightest). The olive oil is pulled out of the decanter and sent for a final cleaning in the vertical separator. The solids and fruit water are sent for disposal, composting, etc.

Polishing 

The final cleaning of the olive oil is sometimes called polishing. It involves another centrifuging, this time in a modified cream separator. The last traces of fruit water and particles are removed and the fresh olive oil is ready for settling or filtration. Or you can just grab a piece of bread and enjoy it straight out of the mill as olio nuovo!

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Balsamic Vinegar

The truth about Balsamic Vinegar – What is it?

The price and quality of balsamic vinegar can vary widely and is largely determined by whether or not it is authentic traditional balsamic. Authentic traditional balsamic only comes from two places: Modena or Reggio Emilia, Italy. Traditional Balsamic is highly regulated and controlled. It is produced in small quantities and is sold at a much higher price point than non–traditional balsamic. It is labeled as either aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena or aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia and is adorned with the appropriate seal and certificate of origin, and ensconced in a specially shaped bottle.

Most of the products on the market labelled balsamic are not authentic traditional balsamic but condimento or industriale. This does not mean that they are not flavorful, useful, and appropriate. It also does not mean that they did not originate in Italy.

Authentic Traditional Balsamic only comes from two places: Reggio Emilia or Modena, Italy.

How is authentic traditional Balsamic made?

Grapes are pressed and filtered and the juice (called the “must”) is boiled over an open flame in an open vessel until it is reduced by about 50%. At this point it is stored in tanks until the process of fermentation allows the alcohol level to reach a certain value. Acetic acid bacteria are then added and promote the browning process.

The thickened mixture (the “base vinegar”) is placed in different types of wooden barrels of various sizes (from very large to very small). Barrels are constructed of different types of woods to impart different flavor characteristics (e.g. cherry wood makes it sweet, and oak is typically used in the smaller barrels.)

The barrels are then stored to begin the aging process. Conditions are very important in the formation of Balsamic Vinegar as warm temperatures allow for browning, evaporation, and concentration; whereas, cooler temperatures promote decantation and pureness. Thus, a temperature variance from warm to cold and back (like in an attic) is a desirable environment for creating balsamic.

Eventually, evaporation will reduce the amount of liquid in each barrel. Once a year, the barrels are “topped off” from a barrel one size larger. Thus, over time, liquid gets moved from the largest barrels to the smallest (by moving through an entire series of barrels), imparting an abundance of concentrated flavors as it goes. Five different types of wood are necessary to classify a balsamic as traditionale. The concentrated balsamic remaining in the smallest barrels (after an extended aging period) is bottled and sent to market (or kept for personal consumption).

Traditional Balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia (aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia): How would I know?

Traditional Balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia (aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia) must be made from grapes originating locally. These include Trebbiano, Occhio di Gatto, Spergola, Berzemino, Marani, Salamino, Maestri, Montericco, Sorbara and Ancellotta.

Additionally, it must be assessed by master tasters who determine if it is worthy to be called Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Reggio Emilia and if so, categorize it according to three “levels”: aragosta (lobster red), argento (silver), or oro (gold). Aragosta has been aged a minimum of 12 years, Argento 18 years, and Oro a minimum of 25 years.

It must be contained in a special 100ml bottle adorned with a wax seal and have a seal of authenticity from the Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegars from Reggio Emilia. The D.O.P. seal (designation of protected origin) ensures the product is actually from Reggio Emilia.

Traditional Oro label from Reggio Emilia: note the shape of the bottle, the red wax top, the Reggio Emilia seal, and the numbered label directly below it. The seal to the right is the designation of protected origin.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena (aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena): How would I know?

Traditional Balsamic from Modena must be assessed by a panel of five expert tasters. The “standard” aging time is twelve years and that which is aged over twenty–five years is adorned with the words “Extra Vecchio.” It must be contained in a special 100ml bottle adorned with a seal of authenticity from the Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegars from Modena. The D.O.P. seal (designation of protected origin) ensures the product is actually from Modena.

Traditional Balsamic from Modena: note the onion shape of the bottle (characteristic of Modena) and the numbered seal across the top. The seal to the right is the official seal of the Modena Consortium.

What is condiment balsamic? Why is it less expensive?

 Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) is commonly used to denote condiment balsamic that is a less expensive version of the traditional. This type of balsamic is considered “condimento” because it did not undergo the stringent process required to be considered traditional. It may have used only three woods instead of five, been released earlier than 12 years, or come from a region outside of Reggio Emilia or Modena. As a result, the price is much lower. As an example, an 18yr Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Aceto Balsamico di Modena) in a 250ml bottle would typically retail at Olivada for $15. To compare, an 18yr (Silver label) Traditional Balsamic from Reggio Emilia in a 100ml bottle retails for $183. Both are great products and we would be happy to sell you either one! However, each has its purpose.

The balsamic at the grocery store is $5. What’s up with that?

What you’re looking at is “industriale” or commercial grade balsamic. In fact, it’s tough to even call it balsamic. This is a mass produced substance that is really nothing more than vinegar, often with a caramel coloring and sugar added to make it appear better than it actually is. As a marketing ploy, manufacturers will actually print a large number on the bottle such as an “8” or a “12”. This number means absolutely nothing! It is simply a gimmick to make the uninformed consumer think they are getting a product aged for that period of time.

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Wine Vinegar

What is Vinegar?

A liquid in which the natural sugars are allowed to ferment into alcohol, and then a secondary fermentation occurs converting the alcohol to the final product – vinegar.

How is vinegar made?

Yeast is used to convert the natural sugars into alcohol and bacteria is introduced which changes the alcohol to vinegar. Once the alcohol is converted, the result is a product that contains a weak acetic acid – the “acidity” taste associated with vinegar. USDA rules state that to be called “vinegar” the liquid must have an acidity level of at least 4%. 

What is the most common vinegar?

The most common vinegar is white household vinegar. It is more often than not produced in a laboratory by taking acetic acid and diluting it with water or by using grain ethanol. Although it’s great for cleaning around the house, it may be a little too strong for flavoring foods. The second most common form of vinegar is apple cider vinegar which can be used for dressings, marinades, and general use.

What is wine vinegar? 

Wine vinegar is in fact made from wine. The quality of the wine will determine how complex and flavorful the vinegar is. By starting with a good wine, and then aging for a few more years, a great product can be produced that can pull out the sweetness of fruits and berries. Higher quality wine vinegars can be obtained from gourmet food stores, as most supermarket varieties (”red wine vinegar”) are of low commercial grade quality. To really get some great flavor try specific wine varietals such as Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Champagne vinegar.

What are some other types of vinegar?

Rice, Malt, Raisin, Beer, and Coconut vinegar are all specialty products that have gone through the dual fermentation process. Each has a distinct flavor and a specific purpose depending on the dish.

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