Monthly Archives: June 2012

Novotel: no, no, no.

Novotel: Bostock Lane, Long Eaton, Nottingham

It’s a budget hotel; I’m not expecting a fine dining experience but after a long drive I would like food that is edible, tasty and enjoyable.

The restaurant could do with a bit of a face lift although if you’re able to ignore your surroundings of looming lampshades and the cheap ceiling, the tables and chairs themselves were actually quite stylish. Scanning the prices of the menu, you might have thought that some complimentary bread would be brought to settle you down to your meal; you, like us, would have thought wrong.

For starters we ordered the soup of the day (basil and tomato) and the mixed Indian platter. Other choices included scallops and chicken liver pate. The soup had a rich, strong flavour though was served with cubes of drowned bread slowly dissolving in the middle. Furthermore, the dried soup on the edges of the bowl hinted at a quick spell in the microwave. We were advised to order the large Indian platter as this came with four of each item instead of two; now either the chef can’t count or the waiter is misinformed. The raita and mango chutney were cold but served in hot dishes, the temperatures clashing with the textures while the lamb samosas were soggy, possibly because the fat for frying them wasn’t hot enough. Similarly, the onion bhajis were greasy and the chicken tikka skewers, if that’s what meat it really was, were rubbery and tasteless. The mini poppadoms, however, were fine.

The waitress was visibly surprised when we truthfully answered her inquiry as to whether we enjoyed our starters. She said she would mention our comments to the chef so we were slightly more optimistic for the main courses.

The menu tried to appeal to all travellers passing through with “favourites” such as chicken Caesar salad and Thai chicken curry, or mains including three different steaks and pan-fried trout as well as a long list of sandwiches. Quite how else you would fry trout is something to ponder.

The 8oz rump steak with green beans was served medium-rare. It had already been cut up on the plate; one of my pet peeves is when people needlessly dabble with my food, after all, part of the enjoyment with a steak is slicing through the meat and seeing the juice dribble out. Not that any juice could be squeezed out of my steak, but apart from that it was well-cooked and the beans done just fine. The 9oz rib-eye was beautifully pink, basic chips served in a wire basket and a medley of mushrooms and tomatoes bringing some much-needed fresh colour. “Favourite” is an interesting word to describe the Thai chicken curry. It came in a small, dated bowl, a leaf or two floating in the pale green gloopy sauce which left a sticky aftertaste in the mouth, though lemongrass was pleasingly prominent. The mini naan was from a packet, which was fine, if it wasn’t still doughy from possibly another job in the 800-watt micro-chef. The rice, in its dome mould, could be picked up by the fork in one congealed gluey lump, as my dining partner did to show the waitress.

We declined dessert. When asked again if our meal was alright, we explained our dissatisfaction and when presented with a bill that didn’t match the quality, we asked if a discount might be possible. Yes, it was that grim. The waitress then informed us that, according to the kitchen, that was how the rice was meant to be served; chefs of the world take note. After speaking with the duty manager she very kindly took off the Indian platter and 50% of the chicken curry.

Not fantastic; one companion commented “the worst meal I’ve had all year.” Still, I suppose we’ve got six months to go. Nevertheless, the service was all smiles and polite charm.

So no, don’t go to Novotel for dinner. The mixed hot and cold breakfast was admittedly much better and we left much happier with far fuller bellies. Unfortunately, the extortionate price of £13.95 ensured our wallets slimmed down considerably.

 

 

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a match made on the tennis courts? Or in Tudor Britain? Plus – how to enjoy your strawberries this year!

 

Recognise this?  Yes, as the Wimbledon Tennis Championships return, so do the pots of “no less than 10” strawberries served with a dollop of fresh cream. Over the fortnight, a staggeringly 27kg of strawberries are eaten at Wimbledon, along with a silky-smooth heart-attack of 7,000 litres of fresh cream. Interesting. But was this tradition born into the costly cups of Wimbledon?

The combination of strawberries and cream was actually brought together as early as 1500 by Thomas Wolsey in his home of Hampton Court Palace. While serving Henry VIII as Lord Chancellor and Cardinal, Wolsey’s cooks fed up to 600 people twice a day. One needs little persuading to create a dessert that is quick to dole out. The light fruit course can also be seen as a refreshing antidote to the sometimes up to 44 meat dishes that preceded it.

The Romans, however, were the first to cultivate wild English strawberries. During the 14th century, the little red fruit also became popular in French palaces and was soon recognised as a luxury, with poor children selling punnets by the roadside to the rich.

British strawberries are in season between May and September, reaching their prime at around midsummer. Many farms encourage families to pick their own to take home to turn into tasty jams or to include in fruit tarts and meringues. Supermarkets often place British strawberries on offer, an incentive to help British farmers and to support local produce. Of course, if you’re attending Wimbledon your £2.25 delight will come from Kentish strawberries, picked that very day from the tastiest Elsanta species, arriving in London at roughly 5.30am. 

The tradition itself is often compared to being as important as the tennis that takes place over the 13 days. America’s NBC’s “Breakfast at Wimbledon” even serves strawberries and cream on the weekend specials, highlighting the global span of the custom. One can have no doubt that Wimbledon’s hospitality packages will serve up the very best of the fruit and cream, with The Gatsby Club mentioning it specifically as included in their service (one might hasten to add that if you’ve secured hospitality tickets then you may be looking to the other distractions provided than the basics of strawberries of cream.)  

But that is what makes this small, seemingly insignificant fruit and tradition just so interesting. And for those of you not going to Wimbledon, here are some tasty tips on how to enjoy your strawberries this year:

  • Refreshing: Served plain or with a sprinkling of sugar
  • Classic: juicy strawberries dribbled with fresh single or double cream, your choice!
  • Tangy: add a bit of Cointreau into your cream for an alcoholic treat
  • Devilish: melt a bar of milk chocolate and spear your strawberries with cocktail sticks to dip in – or for finger-licking fun, use your hands!
  • A Little Bit More: dip them in balsamic vinegar and serve with slices of mozzarella and prosciutto

 

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Colman’s Fish And Chips – Ocean Road, South Shields, Tyneside

Colman’s haddock, chips and mushy peas

The combination of fish and chips first started to arrive around the middle of the 19th century. Colman’s of South Shields, Tyneside, first opened in 1926 after relocating from the original business in 1905. It is still run and owned by the same family today. And it’s not just how long this shop has survived that is amazing; it is the award-winning food.

Restaurants that win awards cannot always boast that they continue to match those standards day-in, day-out but I believe Colman’s can. Situated on Ocean Road, the takeaway shop is also part of a dine-in restaurant where the traditional meals are served on plates with cutlery and the usual conveniences of a restaurant. I prefer my fish and chips in the paper, although with Colman’s your food is served in a fashionable box with separate compartments for the fish and chips.

The menu covers every kind of fish that you could want, though what is available changes daily. They even list the name of the boat that caught your fish, adding a touch of personality to your takeaway.

The fish is fried to order, keeping it fresh and preventing the batter from going soggy in the heated cabinets. You can choose from regular or large but the regular portions are ample, unless you enjoy a fishy gorge. The chips are fat and fluffy, lavishly sprayed with salt and vinegar if that’s the way you like it. They are cut thickly so they absorb less oil and therefore are less fattening – this and all other cooking processes are described in various leaflets around the shop so highlighting the care and attention paid to their trade.

This time, I opted for Haddock, guilt-free as it is MSC certified; something very few restaurants in the UK can claim to have written on their menu. The batter is golden-brown, falling from the fish onto your teeth with a satisfying crunch. The flesh of the fish is thick and sweet in flavour, the flakes holding together as Haddock should. Mushy peas steamed in the traditional polystyrene pot. They were the perfect shade of garden-fresh green, mixed to a lovely pre-pulp to deliver a bite without losing that classic chewed-up look. Yes, we Brits know what we like.

Inside Colman’s, while you await your order, you can admire their wealth of certificates ranging from Top Eco Fish & Chips Greenpeace to BBC Radio 4 Food & Farming Awards Best UK Takeaway. As I said, their fish is MSC certified and they offer more sustainably caught options for endangered species such as Cod and Haddock, while also promoting lesser known species including Pollock and Whiting. The prawns in their fishcakes are Dublin Bay and not the endangered King/Tiger prawns. Fish2Fork even gave them a prestigious 4.5/5 rating.

As always, I look forward to returning to Colman’s and hope that they continue to provide the friendly service matched by the terrific food. And yes, even the prices match that of many local chippies. It’s a gem that you may otherwise overlook as there are other chip-shops on Ocean Road but Colman’s is well worth a visit, if only to see what fish and chips should be like.

Links: www.colmansfishandchips.com and www.fish2fork.com and http://www.msc.org

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Cafe Rouge – Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, Manchester

Situated in Didsbury, amongst Gourmet Burger Kitchen, The Slug and Lettuce and other high-street and independent eateries, Café Rouge has the advantage of being the only French-style restaurant in a popular dining area. For a Saturday night, it was surprisingly quiet so what is it that Didsbury diners are looking for?

The café attempts to replicate a traditional French brasserie: brass rails, posters plastered to the walls; coloured lamps and words stamped across the cream-coloured walls. Unfortunately the fabric itself is tired and drab, turning the French kitsch to outdated.

Our waiter was overbearing from the outset, pretentious or insincere to put it bluntly. Our water was “on its way,” seemingly from another town, while the olives offered for “while we wait” for the starters turned into a whole little wait in themselves. Perhaps it was just our waiter who had been trained in the art of slouching over customers’ chairs and slamming glasses down without spilling their contents as I caught sight of other waiters serving with charm, flair and smiles.

The menu is typical of a high-street chain that is open all day from quick plates to sharers, steaks to salads and desserts to coffees. One thing with a menu this size is that you have to wonder how much is prepared in advance in order to cater with the diners’ wide choice. They also offer some fish specials – I was disappointed to see many endangered fish such as salmon and king prawns listed, without any mention of sustainable sourcing or alerts to customers of the concerns surrounding these breeds. I’m currently awaiting a reply from Café Rouge on the “standards” that they ensure all their suppliers meet in sustainable fishing.

My starter of Salade de Courage Rotie was fresh and colourful, if a little oily. Pumpkin seeds added a chic touch. The petit plat of cold pork gave a tasty sampling of raw meats with fresh French bread while feta cheese served with marinated peppers went down a treat.

A main of tagine de poulet – tender chicken pieces tossed in a tasty, spicy sauce (described as North African) was devoid of the medley of flavours and ingredients one might expect in a tagine, such as raisins, apricots, cinnamon and ginger, although the olives added a strong, fruity edge. The couscous, which should have tumbled from its mould when prodded, was a little rubbery but edible. Confit de Canard presented overcooked dauphinoise, a gloopy plum sauce and the duck skin, so prized when served crispy, juicy with fat, was soft and chewy. Better were the salmon fishcakes; light on the outside and fluffy on the inside, the accompanying skinny fries generous and crispy.

Gauffre Belle-Helene was dessert, or sweet waffle with vanilla ice cream, poached pear and chocolate sauce. The waffle was slightly overcooked, though thick, and the chocolate sauce, although thankfully not sickly sweet as is often the case, had a strange, bitter aftertaste. The ice cream, however, was deliciously creamy and the pear was, well, a pear. An interesting take on the traditional French dish but the components lacked coherency.

Altogether, a pleasant evening. Perhaps it’s the slow service that doesn’t bring people back, or the unremarkable food. I’ll be making an effort to find out about Café Rouge’s fish sourcing but I’ll also be making a trip to the other high-street chains to seek out something with a little more élan.

For more information about sustainable fish when eating out or at home, visit: www.fish2fork.com

 

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gig to go to: the long awaited return of…

Fatal Smile will be headlining a gig at The Underworld, Camden, London on 7th September with support act Crazy Lixx.

Tickets are a bargain at £12 and the show starts at 7pm. The Underworld is such an atmospheric venue and wonderful for intimate gigs with great chances of meeting the band or getting stuff signed if that’s the kind of thing you like. Friendly staff and drinks won’t put you too far out of pocket.

Crazy Lixx have only played once before in the UK in 2010 at Firefest, Nottingham; since then they have released Riot Avenue, their 3rd album that sees them return to their hard rock roots.

Having seen them in Sweden in 2009 at the annual Rest in Sleaze festival, I can tell you that they deliver a cracking live show complete with the quality of sound to match.

Fatal Smile is a heavier quartet with their new album Welcome to the Freakshow. The two bands combined are sure to provide an interesting night out and a little something for all rock fans. I haven’t seen Fatal Smile live but they have energy, balls and some great music to showcase.

So don’t miss it!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMVhtvfZD_Y – Fatal Smile

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5taSMfEdh8 – Crazy Lixx

Links: www.crazylixx.com & www.theunderworldcamden.co.uk

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The Lead Station – Beech Road, Chorlton, Manchester

We were early and our table wasn’t yet ready but friendly and enthusiastic staff persuaded us to have a drink at the bar, revealing their large selection of beers, cocktails and wines. With the Copper Room upstairs for private entertainment and the brick, wood-beamed dining room downstairs, The Lead Station is both comfortable, modern and stylish.

Ok, so the white conservatory revealing the grey Manchester sky clashed a little, but you can’t blame the restaurant for the weather. The dining room itself was overly noisy so conversation was difficult but candle-lit tables laid by leather-seated benches ensured an attractive space as long as you didn’t look up to the tacky arms of the conservatory. The laminated menus weren’t entirely clean and had the feel of an amateurish pub that serves traditional bar snacks.

The menu itself was short and sweet with a mixed style of modern dishes to choose from. Specials included tomato and roasted pepper soup and monkfish tail wrapped in pancetta. The soup was lovely and thick, decorated with a swirl of basil oil and served with slices of wonderfully light, seeded bread. A little large for a starter but delicious nonetheless. The second starter special of crab ravioli was less impressive; the crab was bland and the dish a little oily but the ravioli itself was sweet and fresh.

Mains came in the form of lightly battered fish and rough-cut, fat chips; a hearty chicken pie served beside a clean scoop of mash and green beans. The special of monkfish wrapped in pancetta was disappointingly tasteless however, the combination not working overly well. Bang Bang chicken with glass noodles was beautifully seasoned, the satay sauce spicy but not too strongly flavoured with peanuts while the peppers, red onion and beansprouts were tender and crunchy. Salad seemed a bit of an odd accompaniment in addition to glass noodles yet somehow it all came together.

There followed desserts of sticky toffee pudding steaming beside dollops of cream and slices of chocolate cake, the plate studded with halved strawberries and ribbons of chocolate sauce. The restaurant advertises that these change daily, made fresh from locally supplied ingredients.

We were served quickly and subtly throughout although I found the variety of cuisines on the menu a little disconcerting in finding The Lead Station’s overall style. One could also choose traditional steak or fat chunks of skewered lamb with toasted pitta and spicy couscous. Cliche dishes, you might say, for a restaurant describing themselves as “classic and innovative.” Nevertheless, the triumph here was the mostly consistent quality and value for money, not the range offered; perfect for a relaxed night out, drinks with friends, or maybe one to try for lunch.

Links: www.theleadstation.co.uk

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Slash – May 2012 – Apocalyptic Love review

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PVxQ9RWGHI

Band:

  • Myles Kennedy: lead vocals, rhythm guitar
  • Slash: lead & rhythm guitars
  • Todd Kerns: bass, backing vocals
  • Brent Fitz: drums, percussion, electric piano

Track List:

  1. Apocalyptic Love
  2. One Last Thrill
  3. Standing In The Sun
  4. You’re A Lie
  5. No More Heroes
  6. Halo
  7. We Will Roam
  8. Anastasia
  9. Not For Me
  10. Bad Rain
  11. Hard And Fast
  12. Far And Away
  13. Shots Fired
  14. Carolina – Classic Rock edition bonus track
  15. Crazy Life – Classic Rock edition bonus track

 

It’s probably an understatement to say that this album has been much anticipated, simply due to Slash’s extraordinary fan-base in terms of both size and range. I was sceptical, having never been a huge lover of Slash’s solo work, or even of his guitar skills in Guns ‘n’ Roses. However, I am prepared to say that on Apocalyptic Love, he has won me over.

It’s modern without being indie, or becoming one of those poor excuses for a band that declare they play “rock”; it’s produced wonderfully without losing a raw, grungy edge, managed well by the attention to tonality and sound.

The songs are all penned by Slash and vocalist Myles Kennedy, whom you may know from Alter Bridge. I was a little disappointed with Kennedy’s vocal performance, after boasting a four-octave tenor range, and it’s all a bit over-affected making it more distorted than it needs to be.

Opener title track is conventional hard rock with strong, signature riffs but left me thinking that the vocals were too far back in the mix. This was quickly rectified as the album dived into One Last Thrill and Standing in the Sun, both with great momentum and the latter bringing in a more melodic side. The single You’re A Lie was of a darker kind, with simple yet highly effective layering on the verses although by this point I was beginning to wonder if Slash was going to show us anything a little more complex in his department of so-called unbeatable guitar skills. The next couple of songs I felt could be skipped over, being less directional and a little samey. Anastasia opens with a bass-heavy acoustic sound but is melodic and emotive as it picks up the heavy tonality once more. One of my favourite tracks was Bad Rain with a much-awaited change of rhythm in the sparse introduction and a raw, coarse texture too. Hard and Fast needs little explanation but contrasts well next to Far and Away which makes varied use of effects and Kennedy gets a little more of the mix to himself; the bass was especially effective on this track. Shots Fired moved back into the area of too much production for me and as you hit track number 14, you need something really special to keep you stuck in.

The two bonus tracks are worth having. I think the use of the voice-box is interesting and sparingly enough to add to Carolina but the better of the two is definitely Crazy Life; the drums, having mostly been in the background (in a good way) take a more prominent role and Kennedy suits the higher melody. It’s an uplifting end and brought the whole album to a positive close.

The songs are dark, heavy; the epitome of Slash himself. I still stick to my view that Slash is overrated as a guitarist; the riffs here are good and far from power chords, but when there’s hype you’re waiting for someone to live up to it. As a songwriter, this album has convinced me of his ability and it’s one I won’t hesitate to go back to soon.

Links: http://www.slashonline.com/

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fish: need to know

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pnf1WmUl1Go

On Wednesday 13th June it was announced that a ban on the discarding of healthy fish in European waters had been agreed. But is it too late to reel in the damage already caused by decades of overfishing?

Millions of tonnes of edible fish are thrown back, dead, every year as fishermen discard low quality fish when they have met their quota in order to capture a greater profit. Maria Damanaki, the EU fisheries chief, first voiced phasing out discarding in July 2011; if it has taken this long to come to only a compromised agreement, one can only wonder what the future prospects are.

France was the hardest member state to persuade, with a direct call to President Hollande made shortly before dawn before the deal was signed. The worry now is that the reforms offer too much opportunity for backtracking. Some of the most depleted fish species (cod, haddock and other white fish) are not set to be regulated until 2015-2018, which organisations like Greenpeace, argue is too late to save the stocks. Fortunately, other fish, including mackerel and herring, will see the discard ban come into effect in 2014. What about all the others though? The prawns, halibut, tuna and salmon? Well, they’re not mentioned.

Public pressure has been cited as a key factor in the agreement. 800,000 people have signed up to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s FishFight Campaign and I believe he is right to encourage campaigners to feel that they have achieved something this month. I also commend his actions in telling people not to give up now, but to work even harder to keep up the pressure because more needs to done, and quicker too. Other notable campaigners include Chefs Raymond Blanc and Heston Blumenthal, Guardian journalist, Jay Rayner, comedian Alexander Armstrong and entrepreneur Richard Branson.

I’m really pleased to see so many shops now stocking sustainably caught fish so the public can boycott certain brands or products. Waitrose sources all cod from Icelandic fisheries, although these are now coming under scrutiny for dangerously low stocks; Marks and Spencer, as well as been awarded the most sustainable fish supplier in 2006, also sells 15 fish from the MSC’s fish-to-eat list which helps consumers to make smart, tasty and sustainable choices when buying fish. I still think more can be done by supermarkets and suppliers though to advertise where their fish is coming from and to promote sustainable buying. Restaurants, too, should be key players in this campaign by boycotting unsustainably caught fish as some chefs have done when presented with razor clams caught when they are too young.

A maximum yield regulation has been delayed until 2020. It is believed at the moment that if the proposed dates for the ban hold out, then the European Parliament will vote on them in November.

It is vital that we up this pressure now to stop member states from backing out of the agreement to compromise with fishermen trying to make a profit. Marks and Spencer claimed that 80% of people in the UK want to buy sustainably-caught fish, but I have doubts about that figure when I know how few of the people I know make conscious efforts to support this campaign.

If you’d like to get involved, sign up to the FishFight Campaign and see what you can do as an individual, in your school or in your profession to aid this campaign. You will also see me writing about the Fish2Fork campaign in my blog and here you can also find out about the top 10 fish swaps to use in your cooking and even at your local chippy.

Links: www.fish2fork.com and www.fishfight.net

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Crazy Lixx – new lineup…well, sort of

Swedish rockers Crazy Lixx have announced the return of drummer Joel Cirera who left the band after finishing recording the band’s 3rd album, Riot Avenue. As well as adding rhythm guitarist, Edd Liam, the band have procured new bass player, Jens Sjoholm who replaces Loke Rivano.

“We’ve found another great young swedish talent in Jens and the way things are shaping up right now we might very well be looking forward to the best live-sounding Crazy Lixx to date.” – says lead singer Danny Rexon.

For a fairly lesser-known band, Crazy Lixx have seen a fair few members through their ranks, most notably the departure of founding guitarist Vic Zino to Swedish sleazerockers Hardcore Superstar.

Crazy Lixx released their debut album ‘Loud Minority’ in 2007, firmly establishing the band in the Swedish sleaze scene.  In 2010 they signed with Frontiers to release ‘New Religion’. The band’s most recent album, Riot Avenue was released on April 20th 2012. If you haven’t yet heard the newest album or even of the band, I strongly suggest you check them out at www.crazylixx.com where you can find more information, including tour dates. They’re a mix of stadium and hard rock with great production that delivers edgy, in-your-face songs.

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Trixter – 2012 – New Audio Machine

Band:

Vocals/Rhythm Guitar – Pete Loran

Lead Guitar -Steve Brown

Bass – PJ Farley

Drums -Mark Scott

Tracklist:

1. Drag Me Down 

  2. Get On It 
  3. Dirty Love 
  4. Machine 
  5. Live For The Day 
  6. Ride 
  7. Physical Attraction 
  8. Tattoos & Misery 
  9. The Coolest Thing
10. Save Your Soul
11. Walk With A Stranger
12. Heart Of Steel (bonus acoustic track

It opens with a country vibe. No kidding. But I kind of like it. Trixter have always been one of those bands a little on the outside, the ones regarded as maybe just a little too comical to be considered seriously. But I have to admit that this album has my vote; it has the feel-good vibe Trixter are known for without letting the somewhat ridiculous pictures their also known for overly influence the music.

                Drag me down doesn’t exactly grab you and pin you down to listen but as it builds there is a certain confidence in the musicianship that leads the way into the rest of the album. By the third track Dirty Luv the band even sounds, dare I say it, more mature? The pace is slower, accounting for the heavier riffs but I think Trixter worked better with the lighter, friskier songs like those on 1992 album Hear!  The next track Machine rings with this era thanks to Scott’s flamboyant drumming and Brown’s restless guitar work.  The solo, however, will make those with doubts about Trixter reaffirm their vows. At first, I was pleased to hear the retained western sound on ballad Live For The Day but it ends up coming out too bland and mellow. The following tracks I find lacking in structure leaving the listener either lost or bored by their similarity.

                It’s not the best Trixter have produced but neither is it something to be immediately discarded. I was hoping for more, especially something more Trixter-esque but you have to admire the band’s guts for moving away from that sound a little I think. It won’t be my album of the year due to the second half, but I’m not going to put it at the back of the CD cabinet just yet.

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