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TV Dinners: A Question of Taste and beyond…

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Well, as you may already know, Mister North is on TV tonight; part of a team on BBC2’s new food quiz ‘A Question of Taste‘. Our team, which we christened ‘Northern Stars’, is made up of a trio from the North West, united by our love of the knowledge and experience of food. (Update) You can now watch the episode on BBC iPlayer until Jan 30th, or on Youtube.

Myself, Joby aka Mister North: general food geek and co-author of this blog, alongside my London-based sister Miss South (who cheered from the audience but didn’t fancy being in front of the cameras on the show!) I live in Todmorden in the South Pennines (roughly half-way between Manchester and Leeds, straddling the Lancashire/Yorkshire border). Tod’s a lovely small town with a great market, a lot of brilliant local food producers, and through Incredible Edible Todmorden is leading the drive to become self-sufficient in food).

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Inside the Diablo SupperClub

The devil’s in the detail… Diablo SupperClub

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Wednesday night saw us turn up to Chorlton’s inimitable North Star Deli, on Wilbraham Road, to enjoy a taste of the Diablo SupperClub. Not, as you might think at first, a meeting of gastro-occultists, but instead a chance to learn something about Casillero del Diablo wine while enjoying fabulous food.

Yes, those cunning vintners at Concha Y Toro have hit on the ideal way of giving people greater confidence pairing food with wine: bring a liquid roadshow direct to a selection of the country’s finest supper clubs. This was their first venture north of Brighton or London, so of course Mr North was more than happy to help raise a glass in support. My other half is half-Chilean, and we’re partial to a drop of South American reds at the best of times, so this was an invite I didn’t think twice about accepting. After all, what could be more fun than being educated in the dark arts of the grape, while enjoying top-notch food? They’ve got a great blog online, (incidentally this month’s guest blogger is our favourites, Niamh from Eat Like a Girl, who even mentions our take on her exceptional Spiced Beef recipe) and a bunch of user-submitted recipes, which should be good to provoke some fresh ideas in the kitchen.

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It’s incredible to think it’s been almost a year since we attended the first pop-up restaurant at North Star Deli, one of my favourite independent eateries in Manchester. Where did the last 12 months go? In the last year their Join Us 4 Supper nights have become a regular occurrence on the Manchester food scene, showcasing the best of local, seasonal food. Chef Deanna Thomas continues to set the menu and head up the kitchen for each event, whilst the deli has recently expanded to a second location, this time in the city centre. A great tip for a really good breakfast, lunch or fabulous coffee if you’re in the Piccadilly area!

January has a habit of being the grimmest, greyest month (personally I think that’s February… when you want winter to be drawing to a close and it’s tenaciously determined to stay put) and this was the first temptation to eat out since the New Year. Hospitality from the staff at North Star was as warm and welcoming as ever, and as good guests we allowed ourselves to be graciously plied with canapés and bubbly… the perfect start to any evening. First up, an intriguing savoury macaroon, which paired smoked salmon and a citrus-cream cheese inside light macaroons, dusted with poppy seeds. They looked delightful, and were soon followed by rabbit empanadas (following the South Amercian theme), which disappeared faster than a fluffy tail down a rabbit hole. Just right with a delicious dry, crisp glass of Brut Reserva Chardonnay.

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Our resident wine expert for the night, the spendidly-named Hans Joachin Wadsack (or Joe, as he answers to) won over the assorted dinner guests in no time with his extensive knowledge and enthusiasm. This laconic raconteur raptly held our attention with some background on the vineyards, terroir, and production methods of each of the wines we were due to sample that night. That, plus the wonderful smells wafting gently from the open kitchen, cranked the anticipation up to tangible levels in the room.

First course was a trio of plump, tender and perfectly seared King scallops. They sat daintily on a bed Puy lentils cooked in a creamy Chardonnay sauce, finished with tiny roasted tomatoes and (I think) a dash of basil oil. It takes a certain kind of determination to try and snare every last lentil on a plate (preferably doused in that wonderful buttery sauce) but I managed it, and looked up to find everyone else’s plates were empty too: a room full of happy diners.

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We each had a glass of Chardonnay, and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc to accompany the dish: for me the Chardonnay was more harmonious, complementing the subtle ocean flavour of the scallops and butteriness of the sauce alike. A good example of how cooking and drinking the same wine in a dish can really pay dividends. Sure, it felt slightly decadent to sit with two glasses of wine at each serving, but I kept telling myself it was purely for educational purposes!

The aroma of the main had been wafting out of the kitchen for as long as we’d been sat down: I ‘d (wrongly) guessed at beef, but was pleasantly surprised to find out that wonderfully meaty, heady aroma was venison. Mmm, venison. Proper winter fare… and it had been a couple of weeks since our venerable venison pie, so were suffering withdrawal symptoms. Joe introduced the reds which were to accompany the main –  a Shiraz, and a Carmenère – both paired to compliment the food. My predisposition was towards the Carmenère – I love its soft, spiced notes and it’s a bottle I already regularly buy – but the Shiraz was also balanced, fruity, and worked well with the dish.

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Deanna introduced this particular venison as being sourced from red deer – good to know as there’s no legal requirement to disclose what kind of deer your venison is from – and this haunch had been marinading comfortably in a delicious bath of Cabernet Sauvignon for the previous day, ready for cooking. And cooked it was, to perfection: pink flesh gave just enough under a richly caramelised dark exterior. Venison can be a bugger to cook, but this was spot-on: rested and rich without being overwhelming. Add that to an oh-so-rich red wine sauce, some savoy cabbage, and a wintery Hunter’s pie (think Shepherd’s Pie, but with an earthy celeriac mash topping and venison filling) and you have a stellar seasonal selection on a plate.

Finally, we got introduced to the dessert wine – the Casillero del Diablo Late Harvest – which is a newly introduced line in the UK (so new I couldn’t even link to it on their website). I don’t really do dessert wines, but every time I get persuaded to try a dessert wine with an appropriate sweet, I remind myself I appreciate the combination more than I think I do. This was no exception: the dessert was an Blood Orange tart, which quivered and shivered coyly on the plate. The mix of sweet and bitter riffed brilliantly with the concentrated, rich flavour of the wine, and added a welcome burst of late summer sunshine to the dark environs of south Manchester.

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Thanks to Briony and Joe from Casillero del Diablo for the wine and wisdom; Deanna, and Ben in the kitchen for the fantastic food; and smiling service from Adam, Jenny and the rest of the staff. A really great night, with plenty of sparkle, humour and gastronomic pleasures!

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I should also mention that Ben, the chef at North Star Deli, is one third of Team ‘Northern Stars’ on BBC2’s food quiz ‘A Question of Taste‘, alongside myself and SJ from Porcus.  We got on so well together that North Star Deli and North/South Food will be teaming up for next month’s ‘JoinUs4Supper’ on February 23rd. We’re hugely excited about this, and will be announcing more details very soon!

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Delights and tea lights: twice the fun at The Spice Club

As the candles fade after this year’s Diwali, it’s a good time to shine a bright light on The Spice Club in Manchester, one of the best open secrets in the North West’s food landscape. It’s Manchester’s longest running secret supper club, and comes with a sterling reputation. A fortnight ago my regular dining partner and I made it down to the first of two pop-up events in the city centre’s Spinningfields: the second was held this weekend past, and part of me wishes I could’ve been there two weeks running to enjoy the superlative authentic flavours again.

We didn’t have many reference points for Indian cuisine when growing up in Northern Ireland during the 80s. Sure, the family got the occasional takeaway; I had a few good meals round at south Asian friends’ houses; and I remember some home sessions where we made meals with Sharwoods’ finest pre-packed ingredients. Apart from that, our dad’s biryani became a running family joke, largely because it was never served with any sauce so was dry as straw (we think he was missing one half of the recipe and never realised). At the time south Asian food just wasn’t as ubiquitous in Belfast as it was in most English towns, so my first experience of the wider world of Indian food was when I moved to the northwest of England to study.

Diwali candles at The Spice Club, Manchester pop-up restaurant

Hanging out with a couple of beery lads from the Midlands, for whom curry competed with a full Sunday roast when it came to the best choice for a shared house meal, I quickly learned about key ingredient and basic techniques. I got in the habit of easting out at cheap and cheerful curry houses, and when I moved to Manchester (home of the infamous Curry Mile in Rusholme, as well as some great little joints in the Northern Quarter) my education broadened further. I’ve eaten out a lot over the years in Manchester, but two restaurants really made an impression on me for a range of dishes which they offered up; Gaylord, and the sadly-missed Shimla Pinks. Both contradicted the usual restaurant fare by serving fresh dishes with incredibly distinctive flavours. This was the kind of Indian cooking which I could really connect with, but I was more likely to get it cooked by knowledgable friends than when I ate out. Garishly bright sauces, suspiciously-similar looking curries, oil slicks spreading across balti dishes, sickly-sweet dessert options… I knew there was more to Indian food than this, but even in a city with so many choices for eating, it was surprisingly uncommon to find oneself tasting fresh ingredients in the way one would take for granted with, say, Thai food. Surely something was wrong here?

This brings me, in a roundabout way, back to The Spice Club. I’d met Monica Sawhney, the prime force behind Manchester’s first secret supper club, at a couple of events early this year. Her obvious ability to combine advocacy and enthusiasm for quality Indian food was apparent… and infectious… so I was determined to check out The Spice Club when I could. Over the next couple of months I heard more glowing first-hand reports, which cranked up the anticipation, but I always seemed to have something already in the diary. As a result, when I decided to go to the South Indian food special at the beginning of July, my dining companion was most miffed,as she already had plans and couldn’t make it. I smacked my lips with anticipation and signed myself up anyway, keen to check out some Keralan cuisine. After booking through their website and receiving a confirmation email, the next stage was getting a text messgae on the day, revealing the location. As I was going alone I decided to drive – public transport from the depths of the Pennines to the balmy suburbs of north Manchester is a convoluted option – so I was one of the few sets of guests who didn’t BYO.

After a drive over th’hills on a beautiful summer’s evening I arrived at what was very obviously a family home: perfectly appointed but with an atmosphere which thankfully said relaxed dinner party, not mini-restaurant. This vibe, plus the warm and friendly greetings from Monica and her mum Anita at the door, was a perfect statement of intentions. Escorted to my place, I joined a dozen or so other people at one of two large tables. Chatting around before food was served, the diners seemed to come from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of food interest. There’s alway a good frisson at a supper club: a range of dining companions, united by a common interest and shared anticipation of what’s to come. The buzz around the table grew over glasses of fruit juice, before Monica came out to welcome us and introduce the meal. The Spice Club’s manifesto is to let their guests experience and enjoy fantastic, authentic home-made Indian food, and to be as open and welcoming as possible. Including, rather bravely I thought, inviting anyone who wanted to pop into the kitchen to see behind the scenes.

Our first course was Masala Dosa, a wonderfully light dosa (a thin pancake), rolled into a cone and filled with delicately spiced potato. This was wonderful in its own right, but was taken to another level by the wondrous coconut chutney on the side. On a warm summer’s evening this was such a perfectly cool, soothing and fresh condiment, and I made sure to take advantage of it. Not that the food that night needed a cool touch to temper savage spices: if you’re looking to carry out any random acts of chilli masochism, this isn’t the venue for you, it’s all about balancing the distinct fresh flavours of the spices and ingredients in harmony.

After this, our plates were cleared away, and a series of entrées made their way onto the table. Each plate had an individual bowl for the sambar, and plenty of space for the accompaniments. Glancing at my menu, I couldn’t help think the next course had a touch of the Julian & Sandy‘s about it – “ooh, did you vada those steamy idlis down the sambar?” but that says as much about my humour as my relative ignorance of south Indian food…

Idli at Spice Club Manchester

I’d never had idli before: delightfully cute steamed rice and lentil cakes; nor vada, light crispy rice and lentil fritters, delicately spiced and perfect for scooping up sauce. Or beer snacking, I’d warrant. There was a toor dal sambar, piquant and fresh with spiced onion, garlic and ginger; and Pau Bhaji, a selection of veg in a rich tomato-y masala. Little vegetable bhajiis and plenty of chapattis completed this main course.

The presentation is uniformly excellent too… each serving is delicately detailed without being overly fussy. However they obvious know their audience: neatly plated dishes empty quickly but a succession of refills, top-ups and temptations ensure that no-one leaves the table hungry in any way. There’s a touch of that Scots-Irish “Ahh, go on and eat up, you’re at yer Grannys” about the smiling countenances which pleasantly persuade you to have just one more thing…

Curious about the dishes we’d enjoyed, I took up Monica’s opening offer and went for a nosey in the kitchen. Anita was more than happy to show off the ingredients, talk about exactly how to cook them, and how much they all enjoyed hosting Spice Club. All in a kitchen which looked spotless… you get the impression this operation hums and ticks like a well-oiled machine (and that’d be olive oil, not ghee as you might expect… Spice Club aren’t afraid to update traditional elements with healthier alternatives… so no worries about unhealthy greasy curries).

Thankfully after the generosity of the previous courses, dessert was light and fresh – a strawberry and mango sorbet – just right for a warm summer’s eve to cleanse the palate. Then we were offered cardamon tea or a coffee (I went for the cardamon tea) and a selection of cake and biscuits. Despite feeling a little like one of those cartoon characters, when my eyes should’ve registered ‘Full’ signs, I still managed to enjoy more of the biccies than good sense would allow. They’re naan kithai, a kind of cardamom-y shortbread, and boy, they’re seriously good, which I why I’ve linked straight to Monica’s recipe for them.

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Many things made the evening special, but more than anything else I took away the impression that this was something which Monica and her family really loved to do: bringing together people for an insight into great regional home-cooking, with wonderfully warm hospitality. Which, I may say, they did with ease. My better half was even more jealous after she’d heard about the evening, so when we heard The Spice Club was branching out to a pop-up restaurant in central Manchester for two weekends, she quickly determined we’d go. I needed little persuasion…

Looking over the Diwali pop-up restaurant by The Spice Club, Spinningfields, Manchester

After wandering around the shiny glass canyons in Manchester’s gauche new quarter, getting slightly confused by the multiplicity of RBS banks (which threw us, based on the directions we had) we found a corner unit, twinkling with hundreds of candles to set the mood for Diwali. The location was a unit which I believe had been a sandwich bar (the decals on the windows still advertised wraps and salads). As before, the table decorations were beautiful, and they’d managed to inject some homely personality into the space. I popped open one of the bottles of the ever-delightful Meantime IPA which we brought along (a big, strong, fruity, hoppy beer which is absolutely perfect for a spicy meal) and we talked to our dining companions. It turned out to be a small world – I was sitting next to a lady I’d last met at the Spice Club during the summer – so obviously we’d both rated it highly enough to plan a return visit, this time with our partners.

Aloo Tikka Chaat - Spice Club, Manchester

After Monica came out of the kitchen and introduced the evening, we were presented with a lovely appetiser: Aloo Tikka Chaat. A dinky potato patty, topped with chutney, yoghurt and a tangy sweet tamarind sauce, together with chickpeas and tomato. Small, but perfectly formed, this set the pace for the rest of the evening with its fresh flavours and perky presentation. Really good. It was only after I’d left the July Spice Club I’d realised the whole evening was vegetarian. This time our entrées had a more meaty bent, but as with so much good Indian cuisine, veg and pulses played a critical role. Roasted chicken Masala was a million miles from its namesake in most restaurants, being melting succulent and thrilling warming; the Shahi Keema Mattar paired the classic minced lamb with peas and spices perfectly. The dal, made from moong and channa, and lobia (black-eyed beans) was as good as anything I’ve ever had before, and the Gajjar ka Raita, a carrot raita added a dash of sweet coolness. How come I’ve never had a carrot raita before… it’s genius!

Entrées at Spice Club pop-up restaurant, Manchester

However the real revelation of the night for me was the Paneer Bhindi. I’ve had okra (aka the slightly creepily-named ladies fingers) before, but was not impressed by its somewhat slimy texture. Likewise, though I’ve had paneer in dishes before, when I’ve tried to cook with it at home, it’s left me thinking it’s like a blander cheese cousin of tofu. That’s aching bland. So I was tentative in trying out the paneer bhindi when it appeared, but I had seconds, and even thirds (yes, that policy of death by kindness and generosity was in full effect again, with all the diners plied with multiple helpings of everything from chapattis and rice to main dishes). When I confided that I really didn’t like okra beforehand, I given the tip that it’s often best to overcook it to reduce the mouthfeel which I’d been so unenamoured by. I’m going to be following their recipe for Paneer-stuffed Okra soon…

Kheer - dessert at the Spice Club, Manchester

In between courses, despite there being more diners than usual, service was swift and good-natured, and we even had time to take tips and advice from Anita and Monica as they talked to everyone. We needed a little time to let the main course settle, so easy conversation and good banter was in order. Dessert was Kheer, a sort of grown-up rice pudding, with enough sweetness to lift it without being cloying, and just enough bite to the rice to elevate it above a mousse or blancmange-like consistency. All with a glowing hint of cardamom and a drizzle of mango. Lush.

Cardamom tea was then served alongside those cracking Naan Kithai again, and a slice of the Diwali cake which I think Monica mentioned had been brought along by one of the guests. We also each had a barfi, which again confounded my expectations by being much less sickly-sweet than the versions I’ve had before in sweet houses. The whole evening was a delight: wonderful food, of course, but also a great atmosphere.

This is very much a family affair: Monica fronting the whole operation, with full culinary direction from mum Anita, assistance from brother AJ and dad Jee, and close support from Vik. They’re so obviously proud of their culinary heritage, and determined to reclaim that food background from the identikit coloured curries most of us have been all-too-familiar with.

Monica from The Spice Club

The Spice Club run a series of events every month: having experienced two I’d have no hesitation in urging you to sign up for one of their forthcoming nights. The location might be a mystery, but the authentic tastes, and true deliciousness is guaranteed!

Wild food, or food to drive you wild

Last month’s Guestrant at Electrik was one of my favourites to date. Wild foraged food is something both Miss South and I have dabbled in before, but with the best will in the world, we don’t have the knowledge to go beyond the well known and well-trodden without some proper guidance.

So when I read Beth Creedon was the guest in Electrik’s kitchen for June I was rather excited… I knew how well-received her first stint at Electrik had been last year, so I signed up right away. Beth’s a bit of an expert in foraged food, and comes with good credentials and form in preparing foraged feasts. She, alongside her husband, also runs Dig, Manchester’s best local veggie box scheme. I’d met her at the recent cheese ‘chewtorial’, and her obvious knowledge and enthusiasm for foraged food was infectious.

After the disappointment of the previous month’s event with Julie Bagnolli being cancelled due to poor attendance (shame on you North West foodies… surely you’re not doing anything better on a Monday night?) this needed to be something special to put a smile back on the faces of my dining companion and I. We needn’t have feared: it was.

We arrived, wet after a sudden heavy rainshower, looking over the well-stocked bar. Once again we decided to stick to beer, rather than wine, although there’s a decent selection of both in Electrik. We joined another couple on a table – always one of the best things about pop-up & supperclub-type arrangements is meeting new folk – and snatched a quick look at the menu which was being passed around.

The menu tantalised, teased and prompted whispered questions around our table. It sounded simple and restrained, yet wonderfully exotic. What the hell is Fat Hen? Do cherries go feral only when you lose them? Was that really two desserts on the menu? We couldn’t wait to learn more… so when Beth came out of the kitchen to introduce the first course I was straining to hear every word.

When it arrived the first course looked gorgeous… a perfectly turned-out layered terrine, surrounded by delicate leaves, sitting on a base of finely-sliced beetroot. We found out during the preamble that Fat Hen’s actually a kind of wild spinach-like leaf, not a plump poultry bird, so that was one mental image shattered. It, and the goats cheese in the terrine, was delicious, crowned with a sprig of chickweed. I’ve picked sorrel leaves in the woods before, and love their distinctively tart flavour. This sorrel was French, and the flavour of their leaves added piquancy. The star of the dish, though, were the little pickled dandelion buds. Wow! Revelatory stuff: these unassuming wee buds tasted like capers, and gave the whole starter an extra frission which I’d never expected. I may have to start home pickling…

With such a good starter our expectations around the table cranked up a gear. The main, with razor clams at its centrepiece, caused me some excitement (Miss South has already written on our love of these moreable molluscs) but my dining companion was somewhat nervous at the prospect of blade-like bivalves, being a little squeamish about such things. When the course was presented – a single razor clam shell laying across a bowl of chowder – this did little to allay her concerns, but she became more convinced when she tasted the contents.

The ‘hero’ shell – dressed with the flesh of several razor clams, hearty chunks of chorizo and a sprinkling of chives – capped a healthy portion of chowder. In this the razor clams were paired up with a goodly selection of smaller, more conventional clams. Accompanied by Barbakan bread, a perfect heart-shaped pat of delicious butter, and a hunk of lemon, this was simple but great fare. Salty pork and shellfish is a sure-fire winner (I’m looking at you, scallops and black pudding, as a prime example) and the rich notes of the chorizo complemented the tender pale flesh of the clams perfectly. The broth was rich and oh-so-moreable… by the time I looked up from my bowl there was a surfeit of empty shells and crockery around the table.

After that it was time for dessert #1… Beth reappeared from the depths of the kitchen to explain that yes, she couldn’t decide which dessert to serve us, so she opted for both. Hellish for us punters, you must understand, to be saddled with such an onerous task. The ‘feral’ cherries were local, but not totally wild… more like a domestic cultivar which had gone walkabout… so they were less tart than their wild cousins. Again, this looked so pretty… a cherry ‘mouse’, complete with almond ears, sat atop a cream cushion on a delightful chocolate mousse in a ramekin. Digging to the bottom of the mousse revealed macerated cherries, their sweet syrupy flavour riffing off the dark chocolate. Oh, and the finishing touches: glitter, and a sprinkling of popping candy on the plate, only added to the sense of giddy playfulness. Thumbs up!

The second sweet came shortly afterwards, and continued the local and slightly tongue-in-cheek theme, with a light hare-shaped shortbread accompanying strawberries, ice cream and praline pieces. The strawberries are Dig’s own organic offspring, grown in nearby Cheshire in polytunnels. Not sure what variety they were, but their flavour was rich and fruity, exuding summer with every mouthful. The elderflower and lime ice cream started to melt quite quickly, but the taste was divine… light and sharp citrus notes, with the elderflower rounding everything out in the background. The lavender praline was the unexpected highlight for me: I have a soft spot for lavender and its soft floral presence lent itself well to the slightly chewy sweetness of the praline. The whole dish disappeared quickly, but the flavours lingered on as a gentle reminder for some time. A fresh, light and well-balanced full stop to a really good meal.

Presentation was absolutely spot-on, food was fresh and perfectly cooked, and the theme and focus of the whole meal was bang on. A good balance of playfulness, education, quality and localism (without being too hung up on every last ingredient being utterly wild or from on our doorstep) made it a great menu. Oh, and at £25 a head, very good value considering the extra work which must’ve gone into the sourcing and preparation of the course. Couldn’t recommend it highly enough… bravo to Beth (and her sous for the night, Deanna).

Today’s Guestrant features Mary-Ellen McTague and Laurence Tottingham from Aumbry. After June’s experience I can’t wait to see what these graduates of the Fat Duck will deliver from Electrik’s modest kitchen…

Vive la fromage!

A few weeks ago we got an invite to attend a wine and cheese tasting in Manchester, as part of an education campaign for Vive le Cheese, which aims to get us Brits enjoying the pleasures of French fromage. Needless to say it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to sample cheeses (and quaff wine too) so I made a beeline for the Soup Kitchen in Manchester’s Northern Quarter to check out the ‘chewtorial’ last Tuesday (or should that be Chewsday?)


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