PCC blog

Dirt and a rain of stars — a Champagne epiphany.

Sometimes, amidst the daily rolling-the-stone-up-a-hill, nuts, bolts and grinding of ergonomic gears, you get little gifts. It’s those delicious epiphanies that remind me why I love this gig — and stoke the fires to keep at the Quixotic business of evangelizing nuance, character and soul (when pre-digested “content” is the going concern). Harrumph. In any case, ‘tis the season, I guess and serendipity delivered, right on time, a couple aha! moments vis-à-vis bubbles and Beaujolais…
 
Illumination Numéro Un: Illumination indeed, (at least I feel pretty bright). Champagne was once upon a time referred to as a “rain of stars.” While that’s a pretty damned smart description, it doesn’t come close to seizing the astounding depth and elegance possible in truly great Champagne (note that “great” doesn’t necessarily have a financial correlation). Perhaps nowhere are the various misconceptions that surround wine, sparkling wine, French wine, and French sparkling wine more at work than in Champagne. For blue collar and blue blood alike, price and marque are overwhelmingly the undisputed benchmarks of quality. (Let’s not even get started on the tyranny of the masses, or questions of might making right).
 
Now, I’m not suggesting that the grands marques don’ make some mighty fine fizz, far from it. But I am saying that for the most part, they’re neither the most interesting, the most elegant, the best expressions of Champagne’s diverse terroirs, nor even close to being worth the money (price and value being relative).
 
It’s hard to express something about which you have no idea, in any genre. The big houses are run by people who are in the luxury goods business, people who have as much connection to vineyards as bankers have with farmers. Luxury is for those who prefer to be insulated from the reality of dirt and that’s what big-name Champagne is all about. With deep pockets and the entire array of winery technology and tools at their disposal, the big boys have the ability to manipulate, adjust, augment and otherwise process purchased wine into the buffed, fluffed and polished product that’s guaranteed to flatter the consumer with the means. We’re talking luxe — no questions posed, no ellipses, no statements even — just caresses and respectfully whispered assurances. Which is wonderful, if that’s what you’re after.
 
But enough of that already. If your musical tastes have been formed on a playlist of Muzak, Mozart is going to blow your mind. And the more you listen to Mozart, (or Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ravel, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington … take your pick) the more amazed and entranced you’re likely to be.
 
Take away contrivance, preening, posing, crafting — the [biomatter] that goes hand-in-hand with trying to be everything to everyone… reduce a thing to its essence, factor in love and an almost primal urge to express and explore that essence, and you have character, in all its delicious integrity. In music, there’s the composition, an idea, a theme explored, an composer’s expression of the world — and there’s the interpreter, the conductor, the soloist, the bandleader who takes the composition and offers a new perspective on just what the composer was saying. In Champagne, there’s Champagne, that ever-so-special mosaic of terroirs, exposures and microclimates; there are grapes — pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot meunier (the band, as it were); and there is the arranger-composer who appreciates the genius of the idea and brings it to expression in the voices of vineyard and grape.
 
The point? I’ve had the great pleasure of tasting through Terry Theise’s incredible Champagne portfolio on several different occasions now, and find that each time serves not just to provide a greater understanding, but to deepen my appreciation and amazement for the incredible range of flavors, texture, tonal color and dynamic range that can spring from the incomparable dirt of the region.
 
I could of course, spill endless ink describing what I’ve tasted — all of which would amount to little more than a crude, second-hand accounting, much like trying to reproduce the Mona Lisa in house paint, with a broom. A far better course is to invite you to taste for yourself. The wines of Chartogne-Taillet, Gaston Chiquet and Pierre Peters are now available in all PCC stores. We feel that this selection offers a nice synopsis of different styles and terroirs from three superb growers. It’s also worth pointing out that these wines won’t set lighten your wallet any more than the stuff you see in the fancy-pants advertisements (in most cases, you’re going to spend less — and get way more) — as the prices are a reflection of just the costs of production and getting them here and don’t include huge marketing budgets and legions of spread-sheet readers.
 
Again, enough. I digress — and we haven’t even gotten to the part about Beaujolais. Guess that’ll have to wait for another day. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile — life is short, drink well.

More about: Champagne, Sparkling wine, terroir

Fair trade coffee: How it benefits you

We've got a special guest this month on the blog! PCC Grocery Merchandiser Scott Owen recently traveled to Peru sponsored by Equal Exchange and the coffee cooperative known as COCLA to visit coffee farms and meet the families that grow the fair trade, shade-grown, certified organic and locally roasted coffee we sell at PCC. Read about his adventure below and follow coffee beans along their journey with his slideshow.

Coffee cherries to coffee mug

How fair trade benefits consumers

By Scott Owen, PCC Grocery Merchandiser

On May 31, 2011, I started an adventure sponsored by Equal Exchange and COCLA that took me to Agualra, Peru, to visit coffee farms and meet the families that help feed our ever-growing obsession for our daily cup of coffee. I expected to learn quite a lot about the process of coffee growing and the business aspects of fair trade from this trip. But meeting the actual farmers, listening to their stories and seeing the families provided me with a deeper understanding of why fair trade products are so important.

In our consumer-driven economy we want the best we can find for the most reasonable deal we can find it, and who can blame us? We work hard for our money and we want it to go as far as possible. In this aspect of life, I think we are no different from any other culture; as Americans, we enjoy a standard of living that few other countries have attained. The world feeds our habits, and is happy to provide the goods & services we require to maintain our standard of living. The United States and our lifestyle help drive the world’s economy.

While on this trip, I tried to answer the question “why does fair trade matter?” As it turns out the answer is deceptively simple, but complex to explain. So here, it is in a coffee cherry: if you want your coffee to stay at reasonable retails, pay the farmers fairly. Fair trade ensures farmers a reasonable profit to grow coffee, which keeps the bean supply steady, and the steady supply keeps cost down. Wasn’t that easy! The importance of fair trade defined in  23 words, I should get a prize or something right? Now here comes the complex explanation I warned about, because, though the reason is simple, the explanation involves families, human blood sweat and tears, livelihoods, and an unwavering commitment to keeping things, well, fair.

Supply and demand

Most commodities costs are heavily influenced by supply. If the supply on something shrinks, the cost for the remaining goods is driven up by its scarcity, so long as demand does not wane. We have all experienced this with; oil, wheat, cars, even gold and diamonds, so why would coffee be any different? Of course the answer is that it is not. World demand for coffee is rising, and in some areas of the world the supply is falling, so the cost is rising. It's all very logical, though frustrating, if your coffee now costs $1 more per pound than it did last year.

Now comes the part where fair trade saves the day. Every coffee at PCC is fair trade certified. Even though costs will rise, fair trade will keep farmers interested in growing our favorite crop, thus feeding our love for that morning cup of coffee. Now let me tell you about this process. It's far more complicated than I thought, and I will forever thank all the families that make my morning cup of coffee possible.

Coffee trees grow best as a shade plant, and can live up to 25 years with proper care. Shade-grown coffee is important for a few reasons. The trees live longer, the native wildlife is supported, and the workers have a tolerable environment to work in. Now sit back and let me explain to you how we go from coffee cherry to coffee cup. It is not a journey for the faint of heart; this is hard labor, and requires a support network that spans the globe. Yet it starts with one family and one small farm in the middle of the jungle. My experience comes from Peru, which produces three percent of the world’s coffee, but this process is repeated by families all over the world.

Coffee harvest

On June 3 my group meet on the side of a dirt road to help pick some of the coffee crop and gain an understanding of the process. We ascended a steep hillside to join a family to pick the cherries. We toiled for about three hours, and I can tell you, the harvesting is difficult; hot, messy, and I have bug bites in places I would rather not talk about. Picking cherries requires knowledge of the species of coffee tree you are harvesting so that you pick the appropriate color cherry.

Once the cherries are picked, the bags are transported to the roadside, to be picked up and weighed at the processing plant. A full bag of cherries weighs about 225 pounds, and men nearly half my size were handling these bags with relative ease.

Coffee cherry processing

Once at the processing plant, the cherries are weighed, the farmer is given a receipt for his day's delivery, and processing begins immediately. The cherries are dumped into a cement holding tank, and water is used to wash the cherries into a mechanical de-pulper, which separates the fruit from the bean. The beans go one way into another holding tank, and the cherries go another to be composted.

The beans have a light coating of clear fruit on them still, and this is removed by letting the beans ferment for 12 hours. The beans have a definite “feel” to them when properly fermented, and are then washed into a flume that essentially does the grading of the coffee. The best beans are the heaviest and sink to the bottom. Once in the flume the beans are agitated with a wooden paddle, and the sticks, leaves, and bad beans float to the top, and much of this is composted as well. A series of wooden gates in the flume are successively removed, and up to three grades of beans are removed from the flume to be sun-dried to 12 percent humidity. Once the beans are dried, they are bagged in jute sacks, and transported to COCLA for further processing. At COCLA, the beans are tested for quality by the most experienced members of the co-op, and stacked in mountain high stacks to await the cleaning process.

Workers heft the bean sacks, now weighing a scant 125 pounds, to a grate in the floor. Here the beans start a journey through a maze of machines to remove the final paper hull from the beans and clean and sort them so they can be bagged into “COCLA”-stamped jute bag.

Showtime

Now the beans are ready for export. COCLA finds buyers on the world market for the beans that its 8,000 family members have grown.  Importers like Equal Exchange now transport the beans to one of their roasting facilities across the U.S. Once roasted, the beans are ready for consumption. Coffee mugs across the United States are filled with the fair trade fruits of these family labors.

Fair trade = fair treatment and a fair price

Seeing farming, families and economics at this level will change you. Coffee, like many products we consume daily, has a story both unique and personal. The coffee we consume has thousands of lives connected to it. Those lives are supported and enriched when we purchase fair trade coffee. I asked the president of COCLA how retailers can help farm co-ops. He simply said, “Buy our coffee; we will take care of the rest.” So buy fair trade products, buy from co-ops, buy from your local farmers market. Consumption is not bad, but thoughtless consumption profits few individuals. So when you next fill your coffee mug with fair trade goodness, think about all that went into it, and feel good about the fact you are supporting families just like yours across the globe.

More about: bulk, co-op, coffee, Fair Trade

One wine fits all?

 
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the more you try to be all things to all people, the more you become nothing at all. There’s a word for this phenomenon: homogenization.  Those of us old enough to remember what milk tastes like (the old-fangled kind, delivered to our door, complete with that deep, delicious cap of cream at the top) will attest that the homogenized product sold in the dairy case of groceries everywhere bears only the faintest of resemblances to real milk.
 
Speaking of milk and homogenization, it bears pointing out that Starbucks isn’t really about coffee so much as it’s about milk. Milk as delivery beverage for various flavorings – primarily coffee, true, but let’s not kid ourselves. Starbucks figured out right from the get-go that adults are really just big kids. Give ‘em a hot chocolate in the guise of a sophisticated quasi – Euro beverage, slap a cool logo on it, and well, you know the rest. Think about it, how often do you ever hear someone even bother to say “caffe” when they order their double-tall butterscotch extra-whip latte?
 
But I digress, sort of. As consumers are increasingly, incessantly bombarded with messaging and marketing , the lion’s share have become conditioned to be less concerned with the contents than the package – and most importantly, the brand that package wears.  As the average American becomes more and more distracted by competing sound-bite calls for his or her attention the most effective means of attracting a consumer’s attention (read: dollars) is pretty much reduced to being the shiniest shiny thing or yelling the loudest (and I mean that both literally and metaphorically). Done effectively it’s not the sort of thing that invites contemplation or anything resembling reasoned consideration.
 
So…HEY! It’s all about the brand. Get the prospective buyer’s attention, give ‘em a package they‘ll feel good flaunting, one that flatters their self-image -- and all that remains is to make sure that they come back for more. No rocket science or hocus - pocus there, either. It’s not even a matter of putting anything particularly impressive behind the brand – in fact, if it’s mass market appeal you’re after, the less impressive, the better.
 
Back to the milk riff for another chorus… Real milk actually tastes like something, has character, a very particular flavor. When it’s at its best, it’s the sort of thing that you either like or you don’t. Like great wine, real milk can even take on the character of the place it’s from. High mountain meadows, sweet alpine grass, coastal pastures, maybe a kiss of salt breeze, folded into a marshier kind of grassiness. More defined, more particular – and appealing to an even more specific customer.  When it’s the goods, everybody doesn’t necessarily love it. Great stuff for the discerning milk drinker, but not the sort of thing that builds market share.
 
Music? Play it again, same deal, Sam. For the dialed in urbanite, Jazz is a cool word to fling around and makes a nice bumper sticker for the public persona. But Miles, Coltrane, Blakey, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, et al aren’t necessarily always pretty. It’s music that comes from real, living, breathing, feeling, suffering, joyous, sad, elated , longing, melancholy, happy, hurting, exuberant souls in all their messy rawness. Hard to ignore, hence not the best choice for background music. Not to mention that to really get what’s going on in music like that requires actual listening. And maybe even thinking. Not a recipe for big sales. Wanna sell records and make money? Think Kenny G. Nice, saccharine little melodies that require neither attention nor participation. Sonic wallpaper.  You need not be present to win.
 
Wine? Same basic idea (with a few fun peculiarities that’ll be fabulous fodder for future forays --stay tuned!).  Get the bottle on the table with nice graphics. Keep it there by making it a nice, friendly, lush, innocuous alcohol delivery beverage. Update the package from time to time to “keep it fresh” and viola! You’ve got yourself a brand. Thirst-quenching wallpaper, complete with a buzz.
 
Is that a bad thing? Nope, not really. We all like what we like – and sometimes, all we want is a little refreshment, a cocktail, as it were.  But the world is your oyster -- or oysters, as it were. The array of flavors, shades of nuance and cast of characters out there is as astounding as it is endless. And it’s all just waiting to be discovered, tasted, savored and to broaden the lexicon that makes up your story of the world. Best of all, you get to choose. If you like the homogenized kind, well, that’s just fine. There’s plenty of it and plenty of folks who’ll be happy to sell you some. Nothing could be easier.
 
If, on the other hand, you want something that actually IS something, has a story to tell, real flavor, character … soul – well, all you have to do is open your eyes, ears, mouth and mind. Must be present to win.
 
Got wine?

More about: coffee, milk, wine

Behind the scenes at PCC: Christmas in August

I know few of us are ready to give up on summer quite yet. But retailers always think several seasons ahead. We must, to ensure our shelves are stocked and looking splendid when the Puget Sound's chilly mists return and we finally *are* ready for it to be the holiday season. And thus, August is prime time for events like our annual PCC Holiday Expo.

A Charlie Brown-style Christmas tree, courtesy of Bissinger's Chocolates (many thanks to Janice, our board coordinator, for these photos!). 

The Expo is a chance for purveyors of chocolates, caramels, candies, gifts and more to show their wares and meet with Deli merchandisers from each PCC store in one place and on one convenient (and decadent) day. Take a peek at some of what you'll find in our stores later this year.

 

A full complement of Theo chocolate, truffles, caramels and drinking chocolate. Did you know PCC was the first local store to stock Theo? 

Sweet treats from The Essential Baking Company in Seattle. The mini yule log is super cute. 

Truffles and other treasures from Dilettante, another local chocolatier.

Who doesn't love a happy gingerbread man? 

Decadence galore from Fran's, perfect for hostess gifts, stockings, or as a gift to yourself!

Next year I'm definitely going. Now, back to our regularly scheduled season: summer!

More about: chocolate, cookies, desserts, holidays, PCC Deli

Energy bars: some staff favorites

Did you know PCC carries more than 20 brands of energy bars, including vegan, gluten-free and soy-free varieties?  If you ever get overwhelmed by all that great variety (I know I do!) it's helpful to have a game plan so you can find the bars that will best meet your needs.

To gain some clarity, I interviewed Liz Kirk, PhD, R.D., a faculty member in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr Univerity. Read her tips for choosing the best energy bar for your needs (and, a quick guide to energy bars at PCC) in this piece in September PCC Taste magazine.

Meanwhile, here are a few favorirtes from the staff of PCC Taste: 

  • KIND Bar: Sue, our art director, likes their flavor and short ingredients list (whole nuts, fruit and not much else). So does designer Angela, who enjoys them atop her stand-up paddle board while watching for rogue ferry wakes.
  • BumbleBar: Sue’s daughter likes these calcium-rich sesame bars as a quick snack between classes. Made in Washington’s Spokane Valley. I'm a big fan of the Amazing Almond.
  • Probar: Says Jovanna from our graphics team: “Not your usual boring raisin, oat and peanut bar.” She describes them as full of dried fruit, big chunks of chocolate and nuts, just right for an outdoor adventure or emergency snack. 
  • Lärabar: “They aren’t filled with a bunch of processed ingredients — everything’s pure, straightforward and simple,” says Lydia, Taste co-editor. “They’re perfect when you need a little something to tide you over between meals. She likes: Cocoa Mole, Chocolate Coconut, Peanut Butter & Jelly and Ginger Snap.

What are your favorite energy bars? When do you most like to enjoy one? 

Remembrance of things past?

 A warm, late spring evening in Avignon. François Mitterand is President of France, while Robert Parker, Jr. and Microsoft have only just begun their campaigns to digitize wine and the whole damned world, respectively. Bathed in an indescribable, inimitable, rosy glow, light that could launch a crusade or inspire a man to cut off his ear, a group of scruffy, itinerant musicians are having an impromptu soirée atop the ancient walls that surround the city. The second or third of many bottles of modest Côtes du Rhône is circulating, passed from hand to hand among the motley but merry crew, fueling a crescendo of Bacchanalian abandon.  A Babel of conversations rises into the dusk in four languages, ranging from the ether of high-minded, wine-inspired philosophy to the ribald argot of besotted, blue-collar baseness.
 
Among the revelers, a punk-ass but wide-eyed, twenty-something,  French-hipster-intellectual-wannabe American piano player pauses between drags on an unfiltered Gauloise, takes the bottle from a  copain, raises it to his mouth, drinks, thinks, drinks again…and after some thought, passes the bottle on, takes another drag on his cigarette, still tasting, savoring, searching the back closets of his brain for a means to explain just why the hell that sh** was so damned good...
 
It wasn’t exactly a Marcel Proust moment. No remembrance of things past, no resonant chord struck, no wellspring of distant memory tapped. Call it a whole new groove in the gray matter. And every bit the catalyst for sentences of epic complexity. The wine? Not extraordinary, not epic. Not self-conscious, either. Modest, in fact. Down to earth…
 
It was real. It tasted like nature – not in a Hallmark card sort of way, but like it was grown in dirt. Good, clean dirt. Dirt with a certain character, surrounded by various growing things of a certain type and nourished by sun, plenty of sun, sunshine you could literally taste. It wasn’t upwardly mobile, didn’t put on airs, try to be something it wasn’t nor everything to everyone. It wasn’t polished or buffed up, or made for any particular demographic. It was what it was. Just wine. Wine made by ordinary people, for ordinary people to drink, every day. And it was good, as Hemingway once said.
 
That was me, a long time ago. And it was no big deal, really. Just another bottle of wine on just another evening hangin’ with a bunch of fellow slackers. But that bottle (in whose mysterious deep…) sang a song that stuck in my head, an aria (no, take that back, it wasn’t  an aria, it was just a freakin’ song) of dirt, fruit and sun, sung without accompaniment or artifice in the voice of ancient, head-pruned grenache.  A little melody of flavor, a nudge of an nth of a degree that changed my course just enough  to color the way I’ve tasted just about everything since—especially wine. My first job in the wine business was still a couple footloose years down the road, but once I got there, that aha! moment, that little gift, in all  its directness and no-bullshit sincerity kept right on giving.
 
So here I am, and, with any luck, so are you. I could go on, of course. In fact, you can bet that I will. There’s more to the story, and plenty more stories to tell. But enough for Act I, Scene I.
 
Thanks for tuning in.  À bientôt.

More about: wine

Make it at home: popsicles

I've anticipated making these popsicle recipes from my colleague Eli Penberthy ever since I opened July's issue of the Sound Consumer (free in our stores, or find those recipes online here).

To quote Ciscoe, "Ooh, la la!"

The recipe for Peach-Raspberry Popsicles caught my eye. Lacking peaches or raspberries, however, I subbed in equivalent ratios of what I had on hand: local organic strawberries, ripe bananas, nonfat Greek yogurt and honey. 

If you lack a proper blender, an immersion blender works just fine!

 

Making this recipe also meant the chance to bust out my new BPA-free popsicle molds! I received these as a gift; but you'll find some good options at your local PCC. In a pinch, you also can sub in shot glasses. Just cover them with wax paper secured with a rubber band and slit the paper to insert a popsicle stick or small spoon to serve as a handle.

Pretty stars, ready for the freezer!

 

 It took about five hours for mine to set.

...et voila!

Here's what I learned.

  • As with most things culinary, using fresh, ripe fruit produces the best results. The flavor of these local strawberries was intense and jammy, a true taste of summer.
  • Next time, I would use reegular yogurt over Greek yogurt -- it seemed almost too thick when frozen.
  • I also would refrain from testing the handles before the popsicles had spent their full time in the freezer (can you blame me? I wanted a taste!). Testing them too soon meant I yanked the handles out before they set, so I had to eat the results out of the mold with a grapefruit spoon. Thankfully, I limited my curiosity. The ones I left alone set just fine.
  • Let them defrost for a minute or two before you attempt to release them from their molds, or run warm water over the molds to get them a bit loose.This will help the pop maintain the pretty shape of the mold.
  • A friend made the Watermelon-Pineapple Popsicles recently and noted that the honey settles at the bottom of the molds during freezing. That first bite is sweeet! To avoid this, Eli suggests blending the honey with the watermelon first, so that the honey gets dissolved in the juice.

Have you made any of these recipes? Post your photos to our Facebook page! facebook.com/pccnaturalmarkets.

Happy summer!

More about: bananas, desserts, produce, Sound Consumer, strawberries, yogurt

Brunch time? Bake the summertime version of this tasty tea bread

You don't have to wait for the return of local organic pear season to bake a fragrant loaf of PCC Chef Lynne Vea's famous Warm Pear and Hazelnut Tea Bread.

Says Lynne: "This bread can be made with juicy seasonal fruits like plums or nectarines. Don't even bother to peel the fruit, just chop it and substitute in the same amount for the pears." 

This robust bread is great to serve at brunch, take along to someone else's brunch, freezes well for future use and is great toasted and slathered with your favorite butter. If you don't often keep kamut, barley or hazelnuts on hand, visit the bulk section of your local PCC and head home with just the amount you need for this recipe.

Find even more baking ideas in our PCC Recipe Database.

Happy baking!

More about: baking, hazelnuts, Lynne Vea, nectarines, pears, plums, recipes, stone fruit

Which PCC shoppers buy the most cookies? Cake? Granola?

Here's what we know from the month of May: 

  • Issaquah shoppers buy the most cake (data remain unclear whether they also EAT the most cake).

  • Redmond shoppers buy the most granola.
  • Greenlake shoppers buy the most cupcakes.
  • West Seattle shoppers buy the most bars and brownies (Seward Park was a close second).
  • View Ridge shoppers buy the most muffins and scones.
  • Fremont shoppers buy the most cookies (with Kirkland a close second).
  • Edmonds shoppers buy the most baked goods, period.

What's your favorite freshly baked treat from the PCC Bakery? As a Fremont PCC shopper, I have to agree that for me, I can't visit a PCC without snagging at least one cookie, especially a Chocolate Crinkle.

More about: cookies, desserts, Edmonds, Fremont, Greenlake Aurora, Issaquah, Kirkland, PCC Bakery, Redmond, Seward Park, View Ridge, West Seattle

Galia melon: The soul of honeydew in the guise of cantaloupe

I first encountered galia melon last summer, while shooting this video on melon selection tips with our Redmond PCC produce manager, P.J. Cawley.

It resembled a cantaloupe. But crack it open, and you discover this:

Looks an awful lot like honeydew, right?

One whiff of its sticky-sweet fragrance transported me instantly to childhood and the neon green "melon" flavor syrup Mom poured over the shave ice she'd grind for us in the summertime: happiness. This galia was perfectly ripe, true to P.J.'s melon selection tips. It turns out it's a hybrid, an ideal solution for those who can't choose between honeydew or cantaloupe, its parent melons (isn't it fun to say "parent melons?").

Do you love adding melon to just about anything? Check out these melon recipes from our database. Come with me to Inaba Farms in Wapato, Wash. to see where PCC gets its organic watermelon later in the summer. And follow this handy how-to video for a quick, easy method to slice it without cutting yourself.

What are some of your favorite melon varieties? How do you like to eat it?

 

 

More about: fruit, melons, organic food, produce

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