Chocolate – The Elixir of Love

Every February we are inundated with tv, internet, magazine and newspaper ads all selling the “passion” of chocolate. Roses have been pushed aside.  Valentine cards are a thing of the past.  Now chocolate has become the one true symbol of love and romance.  I need to find out not only how our obsession with chocolate began, but  where our love for chocolate started.

If you’ve read my blog “The John Company” then you know how “tea came to Great Britain.  It was Queen Elizabeth I who gave the East India Company a charter to go out in search of spices, competing with the Spanish and the Dutch.  Not only were spices necessary for preserving foods, spices made spoiled foods taste better. Spices were also used for embalming the dead, in religious practices, and as medicine.   Nutmeg was the most cherished of all spices because it was believed to be a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603.

Over the 60 years during which they had a monopoly, The East India Company did bring back spices … pepper, cinnamon, clove, saffron, ginger and nutmeg … and they also brought back tea, coffee and cacao beans.  But it was actually the Spanish who are credited with introducing “Chocolate” to Europe.

Coffee House – 17th century

By the mid-17th century coffee houses were well established in London. These male-dominated “penny universities” were the social and political centers of London.  No woman would dare enter.  Although alcohol was not served, these places were not always ‘high brow’ destinations. In fact, King Charles II made an attempt to ban them altogether by 1675, but the public was so outraged, it was withdrawn.

Coffee was served, tea was just being introduced and alongside coffee and tea a new “hearty drink called “Chacolate” was starting to peak London’s curiosity.  In 1659 Thomas Rugg wrote in his Diurnal … “And theire ware also att this time a Turkish drink to bee sould, almost evry street, called coffee, and another kind of drink called tee, and also a drink called Chacolate, which was a very harty drink.”

Historians have been able to trace the origins of “Chocolate”, which is the result of roasting the ground beans of the cacao plant, back to as early as 1900 B.C. in Mexico, Central America and South America.  The Mayans and Aztecs used the pulverized seeds of the cacao plant, together with water and chili pepper, to brew ceremonial drinks.  They actually believed the cacao bean had divine and magical properties, which made it suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death.   The word “Chocolate” comes from the Maya word “xocoatl” which means “bitter water”.

Cacao beans were also used in trade as currency.  In 1545 a list of Aztec prices illustrates the value of this precious bean:  1 good turkey hen for 100 cacao beans, 1 turkey egg for 3 cacao beans, 1 fully ripe avocado for 1 cacao bean, 1 large tomato for 1 cacao bean.   Unfortunately, according to a report at that time from Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez, cacao beans also bought:  a slave for 100 cacao beans. services of a prostitute for 10 cacao beans, and a rabbit dinner for 4 cacao beans.

It’s hard to know who to credit in the mid-16th century with introducing Spain to the cacao bean and the “hot beverage” that was made from it.  Was it the explorer Christopher Columbus, the conqueror Hernán Cortés, or was it the returning missionary Dominican friars?  Whoever it was certainly made an impression on the Spanish court.  This hot, bitter beverage made from the pressed blocks of dried cacao beans and hot water became a hit with Spanish aristocracy, but only after they began adding honey or sugar to it.  They found it most enjoyable when mixed with milk and flavorings such as vanilla, cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice and chilies.

“Chocolate” then migrated from Spain to France because of the marriage of Spanish King Philip IV’s daughter, Marie Thérèse, who, when she married French King Louis XIV, introduced these hot and hearty drinks to her French entourage.  King Louis XIV became so very fond of chocolate, he actually granted a monopoly for manufacturing this beverage to David Chaillou, a French importer.

Back in England, it was an entrepreneurial Frenchman now familiar with this wonderful elixir who, wanting to elevate the chocolate experience in London, removed it from the bawdy coffee house atmosphere and in 1657 opened the first “chocolate house”.  As always, the wealthy elite were the only ones who could afford this luxurious experience.  Tea was very dear, selling at approximately £26 per pound … which, when you consider the average income was less than £10 per year, was outrageous … and chocolate was just as expensive!

But where did the allure of chocolate as an aphrodisiac come from? The Spanish were quite observant in noticing that the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, drank copious amounts of this cacao bean beverage before he visited his harem.  Montezuma, is said to have drunk cold, thick chocolate from golden goblets daily, which were thrown away after only one use.  And when returning to Spain with the new elixir these Spanish explorers were quite eager to tout the aphrodisiac properties to the Spanish court.  The explorers also described this native “food of the gods” as a drug, able to treat a variety of ailments.

It is said that the French aristocrat, Marquis de Sade, became quite proficient in using chocolate to disguise potions.  The following is taken from a guest’s diary at an elaborate ball given in 1772 by the Marquis:

“Into the dessert he slipped chocolate pastilles so good that a number of people devoured them. There were lots of them, and no one failed to eat some, but he had mixed in some Spanish fly. The virtue of the medication is well known. It proved to be so potent that those who ate the pastilles began to burn with unchaste ardor and to carry on as if in the grip of the most amorous frenzy. The ball degenerated into one of those licentious orgies for which the Romans were renowned…”

Needless to say, the European’s love for chocolate grew, especially when they believed it to have nutritious, medicinal and properties able to increase their libido.  But, like tea, it remained a privilege of the rich.  In the 1700’s, the British obsession for chocolate (and sugar) grew to such proportions they established colonial plantations in tropical regions around the world just to grow cacao and sugar.  Sadly, we all know what happened when European diseases were transmitted into these countries which, to the then privileged Europeans, didn’t stop them from going in search of cheap labor.

Chocolate was always a hot (or iced) drink until 1828 when Dutch chemist, Coenraad Johannes van Houten, invented a specialized hydraulic press  to squeeze the fatty cocoa butter from the roasted cacao beans, leaving behind a dry cake which could then be pulverized into a fine powder.  (We still see “Dutch process” as a way of branding cocoa today.)  This fine powder could be mixed with liquids, poured into molds and solidified into edible, easily digestible chocolate which paved the way for the solid chocolate we all know and love.  This also resulted in making chocolate affordable to everyone. And in 1830, J. S. Fry and Sons, a British chocolate maker, is credited with making the first solid, edible chocolate candy bar.

50 years later, J. S. Fry and Sons merged with another company you may have heard of … Cadbury.  In 1824 John Cadbury opened a grocery store in Birmingham, England.  In addition to groceries, he sold drinking chocolate, which he prepared himself using a pestle and mortar.  Van Houten’s 1828 invention allowed for a much more affordable and versatile product, enabling Cadbury to sell 16 flavors of drinking chocolate.  And when Daniel Peter from Switzerland puts the first milk chocolate on the market, the appeal for chocolate skyrocketed. In 1913 another enterprising Swiss, Jules Sechaud, introduced the process for filling chocolates.  We haven’t looked back since!

So how did we get from there to being the one true symbol of love and romance?  English philosopher, James Wadsworth, translated the Spanish works Treatise (1640), which poetically combined the descriptions of this new hot chocolate beverage with the promise that if you drank enough chocolate anyone would become “faire and amiable.”  Both England and France used this statement as a powerful marketing tool.

Cadbury’s Valentine’s Day Box

St. Valentine’s Day, as a romantic holiday, was well established by the 1840’s.  It first appeared in the writings of Chaucer during the medieval period in 1382 with knights giving roses to their maidens and serenading them with songs.  By the 1840s, the Victorian era of excess was well underway and they were indulging in chocolate, tea, Cupid and romance.  Richard Cadbury recognized this as a great marketing opportunity and designed an elaborately decorated box in which he would put their Cadbury chocolates.  From that moment on, Cupids and roses were put on heart-shaped boxes everywhere.

In 1907, the American chocolate company, Hershey, launched production of its revolutionary tear-dropped shaped “kisses,” (named because of the smooching noise made by the machines as the chocolate was manufactured). Let’s not forget from the earliest days of movies, chocolate has been an important cast member.  Jean Harlow’s seductive performance in the 1933 film Dinner at Eight linked chocolate and sexuality forever, as she suggestively nibbles her way through a giant box of chocolates.  And who will ever forget the classic episode of “I Love Lucy” when Lucy and Ethel worked on a chocolate factory assembly line?

Chocolate lovers are passionate about chocolate, but does chocolate really create passion? Scientists have isolated phenylethylamine (PEA) which is a stimulant found in chocolate (as well as many other foods), and also in the brain.  A minuscule amount of this stimulate is released at moments of emotional euphoria, which raises blood pressure and heart rate.  Although we have learned about the many antioxidant benefits of high-percentage cacao in chocolate, there really is no scientific proof that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.

Does any of this matter?  Not really … because who doesn’t love the luscious, pleasurable sensation of chocolate as it melts in your mouth? And, for me, a velvet-covered, heart-shaped box full of divine chocolates is the quintessential Valentine’s gift.

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References:  Wikipedia, Message to Eagle, Chocolate of the Month, Cornell University, History, Cadbury, Public Domain Review, Smithsonian,
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Whitby Lemon Buns

To set the mood for our upcoming U.K. trip (and because it’s a cold, rainy night … and because I LOVE lemon anything …) I decided to make Whitby Lemon Buns.  Lemons are so-o-o popular in British foods.  From lemonade to candied lemon peel, every part of the lemon is used or preserved. In baking, lemon curd is made by the gallon and is used in pies, tarts, buns and to spread on everything from toast to scones.

Lemons and their cousin, limes, originated in southeast Asia and were brought back to the U.K. along with all the other exotic and interesting spices now so very popular, including, of course,  “tea“. These citrus fruits were life saving for sailors and miners because they were known to prevent “scurvy”, a deadly disease which results from a deficiency in Vitamin C.

In the 1600’s, the East India Company published a handbook for use on its ships describing “scurvy” as a dietary deficiency and recommended a “cure” of “fresh food or, if not available, oranges, lemons, limes and tamarinds”.  Scurvy was such a problem for the English Navy, it  actually killed more sailors than the enemies did.  By the 1700’s, the Navy decreed “a fixed amount of lemon juice should be issued daily to all sailors after their fifth or sixth week afloat“.  Are you familiar with the term “limey“, well I think you now know where that nickname originated.

So now that we’ve learned why these small citrus fruits are so popular, I think it’s time to do some baking.

These “buns” or sweet rolls are believed to have originated in Whitby, a small seaside town on the east coast of England.  To be authentic, these buns should have a lemon curd filling.  I, on the other hand, decided to make my own candied lemon peel and added that instead.  I must say these are absolutely perfect … not too sweet, a hint of lemony goodness and the added touch of candied peel gives it  just a bit of lemony crunch.  Let me know what you think.

WHITBY LEMON BUNS

  • 3 cups unbleached flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 pkg. active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon (1/2 for dough – 1/2 for glaze)
  • 1/4 cup dried fruit or candied lemon peel … OR
  • 1/2 cup lemon curd*
  • confectioner’s sugar
  • lemon juice

 In a large bowl mix together the flour, salt, sugar and lemon zest.  In a small bowl warm the milk slightly (microwave is fine) and add the butter.  Stir until melted.

Mix the yeast with the warm water and one tablespoon sugar, then let it stand until it gets all frothy.  When this has happened, add this mixture to the dry ingredients.  Then add the milk mixture, the beaten egg and juice of one lemon.  Mix well.  This should be a soft dough.  Cover the bowl and let the dough rest for 15 minutes.

 Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board.  Knead in the dried fruits or candied lemon peel.

Place the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, turn the dough over and over to make sure the dough is oiled as well.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let the dough rise in a warm place for 1 to 2 hours or until doubled in size.

 When the dough has doubled in size and is ready (it will hold a depressed fingerprint) tip it out onto your pastry board.

Roll the dough into a long roll and cut into 12 to 16 evenly sized pieces.

*If you are filling the rolls with lemon curd, roll each ball out flat with a rolling pin, place a small spoonful of lemon curd in the middle and then shape into a ball.  Pull tightly and make sure the bottom is sealed.

 If not using lemon curd, just roll each ball tightly and then place all the dough balls in a parchment lined baking tray.  They should just touch each other.

Cover again and let rise in a warm place for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until doubled in size again.

Preheat the oven to 400°. Brush the tops of the buns with beaten egg white and then bake for 12-15 mins or until the buns are golden and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.


Make a simple glaze by mixing 1 cup confectioners sugar with the rest of the lemon juice.  Let the buns cool for a few minutes and then drizzle the glaze over.

Put the kettle on and Enjoy!

 

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CANDIED LEMON PEEL

  • lemons
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons corn syrup or cane sugar syrup
  • water

Remove the peel from the lemon(s).  Then with a s poon, remove as much of the pith as possible. Slice the peel into long, thin julienne strips.  Place the lemon strips into a small saucepan and just cover with water.  Bring to a boil.

Dump the boiling water out and replace with more water.  Bring to a boil again. Repeat at least four times.  This is the only way to remove the bitterness from the peel.  Drain the peel on a paper towel.

In the small saucepan add 1/2 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons corn syrup or cane syrup. Bring to a boil, add the lemon peel and let it slowly boil until the peel is translucent.  Be sure to scrape down the sides of the pan to prevent sugar crystals from forming.

With a slotted spoon, take the peel out and put onto a sheet of waxed paper to cool.  This is extremely hot and shouldn’t be touched until it is completely cool.  When cool, put the candied peel into your recipe, or put into a tightly covered jar.  Should keep very well.

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References:   Food in 18th Century England,  Wikipedia,

The “John” Company

Why am I writing about this company, which actually changed the face of Britain?  Because I am frequently asked “If England never grew tea, how did tea get to England?” Well, here’s the answer.  It all started with establishing the spice trade for Great Britain and the “John” Company …..

spicesSpices had been known to man since the beginning of recorded time.  Pepper, cinnamon, clove, saffron, ginger and nutmeg are some of the oldest.  Not only for preserving foods, spices made spoiled foods taste better, and helped make the ‘unwashed’ smell a little better.  Spices were used for embalming the dead, in religious practices, and as medicine.  Nutmeg, in particular was thought to be a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in 1603 in London.

 With spices grown primarily in Asia and the surrounding islands, the Indonesians were the first to begin selling their spices through what is now known as the Ancient Spice Route.  This long and arduous journey began in Indonesia, traveled through China, India and the Middle East to the east coast of Africa and ended in the coastal city of Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria thus became the central trading center for most of Europe.  Needless to say, these much-in-demand spices became very expensive.

The Portuguese were the first to set their ships off to find the spice islands and by the 1400’s, they dominated much of the overseas spice route.  It wasn’t long, however, before the Dutch and the Spanish went in search of these treasures. Who doesn’t remember the poem “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue ….“? Columbus was, of course, searching for the spice islands, but, as we know, went a bit off course.  By the 1600’s, however, these countries all had a stronghold in this area.

The British East India Company, which was originally named the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies, but more commonly known as the “John” Company, was the brain child of London businessmen in 1600 for the sole purpose of importing these expensive and important spices from Asia, which was now dominated by the Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish.

 Led by James Lancaster, the John Company set off for Indonesia with five ships laden with linens, iron and lead to trade with the Indonesians. These items were of no interest to the leaders of these tropical islands. The Company continued on and finally ended up establishing trading posts in India where they bargained with tribal leaders and received exclusive rights to build factories.

The Company brought back all sorts of exotic goods in addition to the spices … silks, porcelain, lacquerware, cocoa, tobacco, tropical fruits, sugar, coffee and tea.  The Queen was delighted!  Royalty and the affluent members of society were fascinated by these, before now, unseen treasures. Although these rich and powerful people knew very little about these other things, what they did know was that they wanted them … all of them!

Trade wars began and because of their violent encounters with the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese competitors, as well as with pirates, the “Company” found it necessary to create their own military and administrative boards, making them an imperial power.  With this overwhelming power in place, the East India Company soon became the ruler of this massive territory.

One of the more popular items they brought back was, of course, “TEA“.  As with spices, TEA was also first touted for its medicinal benefits …. it “helpeth headaches, giddiness and heaviness …. good for colds, dropsies and scurvies.”  It didn’t take long, however, for tea to be drunk purely for its exotic qualities.  Coffee had been adopted by the French and the Italian.  TEA was to be for the British.  (For more information, be sure to read Earl Grey … The Man The Tea.)

The Company continued building trading posts in India and continued to buy tea from the Dutch, because the Chinese would not trade with the English company.  With the Dutch as the middleman, this made the tea even more expensive.   The Company persisted.  It took about 50 years, but finally they were able to negotiate a trade deal with the Chinese to purchase tea directly.  Their first order was for 100 lbs. The demand for tea grew to the point where less than 100 years later the Company was placing orders for almost 5,000,000 pounds of tea each year!  England was addicted.

The Company was in full control now and was setting the prices. The Chinese wanted to be paid in silver bullion.  At the beginning this wasn’t a problem for the British because silver was in great supply; but with losing the American colonies, access to South America, where the silver was mined, was becoming more and more difficult.

Several decades earlier the Dutch had begun trading tobacco and opium with the Chinese – which the Chinese used mainly for medicinal purposes.  The British, led by the Company, was now ruling over India and had established some opium plantations.  They soon realized the answer to their “tea” problem was to increase their opium trade with the Chinese, ultimately leading to the Opium Wars.

The Company would sell their opium to the Chinese at auction for silver; the very same silver that the Chinese were being paid for their tea.  For the next twenty years, this trade was so lucrative that other trading companies wanted a share.   Although China issued an edict that opium importing and consumption were illegal.  The edict had no effect whatsoever.  The Company, using smugglers and corrupt Chinese officials, continued to bring the drug into the country, using a technique still in practice today of giving away free samples.  Interestingly, the term for accepting bribe money was called “tea money”.
The British East India Company aka the “John” Company had grown into a very powerful political and trading monopoly which rivaled the British Government, and, in effect ruled many of the British Empire’s territories.  It fought nations, set prices and taxed goods.  (We’ll discuss the Boston Tea Party in another blog.)  They had become too powerful and the British government sought to regain control.  No longer was the John Company simply a commercial venture.  It was now a political one.

In 1834 the Company was finally dissolved and it was then that London merchants sprang into action. The first thing they did was to purchase as much tea as possible and as cheaply as possible.

More to come ….

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References:  The Spice House, The East India Company, THE STORY OF TEA by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert Heiss, Wikipedia

Earl Grey ….. the man, the tea!

vintage tea photo

What is it about Earl Grey tea that makes it the most popular tea in the world?  Having been a purveyor of tea for 15 years, it has always stymied me.   There are so-o-o many tasty teas out there, but Earl Grey lovers want Earl Grey tea and nothing more.  Where did this tea come from and how did it achieve such loyalty?

For me, the history and legend of Earl Grey is far more interesting than the tea.  Born March 13, 1764, Charles Grey was the second son of General Charles Grey of Southwick, County Durham, England.   With an impressive education at Eton and Trinity College, he found himself attracted to politics and, at the age of 22, became one of the youngest members elected to Parliament.  With his youthful, idealistic beliefs and strong political stands, he soon became a prominent figure in the Whig party.  Although viewed as extreme at the time, Grey was able to lead many reforms over the next few years.  In 1806 the Whig party was disbanded, and although Grey remained very active in politics, it wasn’t until 1830, when the Whigs were returned to power, that Grey was elected as Prime Minister.

Described as a man of many contradictions (classic Aries),  headstrong, ambitious and impulsive, yet indecisive, pessimistic and at times and foolish, Charles married Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby in 1794.  On the surface, Grey appeared to be a devoted husband and father with a family numbering 15 children (six daughters and ten sons).  Prior to his marriage, and some say throughout, he was a notorious ladies’ man.  His most public affair was with the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Spencer, with whom he produced a child in 1792.

220px-Charles_Grey_(1764-1845),_by_Henry_Bone

Among the many impressive pieces of legislation that Grey’s ministry was able to accomplish were:

  • the Abolition of Slavery Act
  • the Factory Act
  • the ending of the East India Company monopoly
  • ending the farm workers ‘Swing Riots’
  • a state-funded grant for the building of schools
  • allowing marriages to take place in non-Conformist chapels
  • the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act reforming child labor laws

Needless to say, this man was an impressive figure who made quite a contribution to England’s political environment and culture, but when and where did the “tea” connection come from?

Let’s start at the beginning …..
The first chests of tea arrived from China at the docks in London in 1645.  It was, at this time, a fashionable trend among the aristocratic elite to enjoy this exotic beverage.   Over the next 100 years, Great Britain and the new America became obsessed with “tea”.  It had gone from being the beverage of the upper class to the daily drink of commoners.  The East India Company, one of the largest financial monopolies in the world, was formed by Queen Elizabeth I to handle all the trade with China, primarily the ‘tea’ trade.

ancient china tea production 1

The consumption of tea by the Brits had increased from 1 million pounds per year to over 20 million pounds per year.  To pay for this tea, the East India Company offered the Chinese textiles.  The Chinese were far more advanced in manufacturing than the British and did not want such inferior goods. They wanted to be paid in silver bullion.  At the beginning, this wasn’t a problem for the British because silver was in great supply; but with the loss of the American colonies, access to South America, where the silver was mined, was becoming more and more difficult.  The British had some opium plantations in India and soon realized the answer to their “tea” problem was to increase their opium trade with the Chinese.

This was about the time when Lord Grey came into power.  But how Grey became associated with the tea, especially one named for him, is unclear.   There are many legends and discussions, none of which have been verified …..

  • The most familiar is that Lord Grey traveled to China, and during the trip, he, or one of his servants, saved the life of a son of a Chinese mandarin from drowning and was given this tea blend as a “thank you”.
  • Another similar version of this tale has the son of an Indian Raja being rescued from a tiger by one of Lord Grey’s servants.  In both tales, Lord Grey was given the tea as a way of saying “thank you”.
  • One story tells how this tea blend was created by accident when a gift of tea and bergamot fruits were shipped together from China and the tea absorbed the fruit flavor during shipping.
  • Another story says the tea was named after Charles by Jackson’s of Piccadilly, who blended the tea “to meet the wishes of the former Earl of Grey”.earl-grey-1

The legends also describe Lord Grey as having enjoyed this tea so much, he asked a London tea merchant to try to replicate the flavor.  The Prime Minister being so pleased, he allowed this custom-blended tea to be sold to select customers.  Interestingly, in 1837 (three years after Lord Grey left political life), London tea merchants, Brocksop & Company faced criminal charges for adding bergamot to lower quality tea in order to misrepresent it as a superior product (at a higher price).   Would Lord Grey really have endorsed an inferior tea?  I highly doubt it.

My theory is …. the early founders of London tea salons, Thomas Twining and Robert Jackson were both shameless self-promoters and marketeers.  With British tea shops becoming very popular and competitive, they had to do something to draw attention to their shops and the teas they sold.  What better way than to create a specialty blends in honor of a dignitary perhaps or member of the royal family?   The “Queen Victoria” blend, “Royal Wedding” blend, and possibly the “Earl Grey” blend.

Twining and Jackson both took credit for creating the now familiar blend which uses the natural oils from the peel of the bergamot fruit to flavor the Chinese blend of black leaves, but will we ever know?  What we do know is that this tea, which bears the name of the Prime Minister of England, is one of the most popular flavored teas in the world today (although I don’t know why).

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Resources:  Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. , Wikipedia, the Victorian Web, The Book of Tea by Anthony Burgess, TEA by Lydia Gautier, TEA by Roy Moxham

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