Hostel Chocolate Part III, the Thrilling Conclusion

When we last left off, I was turning the cacao nibs we roasted in Costa Rica into powder via an uncooperative coffee grinder. It did not look promising. While the cacao mixture had liquefied as expected, it seemed grainy. I dumped it into a container and then placed in the fridge, where it solidified into this mass by next morning:

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It kind of looks like chocolate, although it looks more like chocolate that has gone off

I paused at this point because after reading various chocolate-making resources, I learned that I wasn’t going to be making anything except the darkest chocolate without cocoa butter. It would be something that hovered around 82% chocolate*, which is definitely not my cup of tea. Or bar of chocolate.

While it was possible we might find cocoa butter somewhere in Medellín, I didn’t have high hopes. Because it’s needed to make chocolate and much of it can be lost in processing cacao, cocoa butter is the most valuable part of the cacao mass. Most chocolate-makers order it from sources online, so what are the odds I’d find some that someone selling it in a shop? We were also heading to the tiny town of Guatapé for two days, so the likelihood I’d find cocoa butter soon was nil. Right?

It turns out that the old adage about finding things in the least likely places is true. While in Guatapé we encountered José, the owner of La Tiendita de Chocolate and full time chocolate-maker. As luck would have it, he had just ordered a huge amount cocoa butter to work with, and he agreed to sell us a couple of ounces for about $2 USD. “It’s funny,” he told us, “I just got cocoa butter for the first time last week. I’ve never had it around before then.” How’s THAT for good timing on our part?

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Our little nibbin of cocoa butter

With cocoa butter in hand**, I returned to Medellín to complete our chocolate making adventure. The first step was to assemble the ingredients: the cocoa mass, the cocoa butter, sugar, and milk powder. Milk powder isn’t generally used in dark chocolate, but I figured I could try making some dark milk chocolate. I took multiple recipes and mashed them together, aiming for roughly the following ratios:

5 parts cocoa mass
1 part cocoa butter
2 parts sugar
2 parts milk powder

The first thing I did was put the coffee grinder through one more round of grinding-things-it-shouldn’t be. I wanted the chocolate to be as smooth as possible, and without water sugar doesn’t dissolve, leaving a sandy texture. I put several tablespoons into the coffee grinder and created a fine powder.

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Sugar, before (left) and after (right) grinding

I did the same with the powdered milk, but it turns out that the powdered milk was indeed powder, and the grinding had no effect:

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Our milk powder, before (left) and after (right) grinding.

Then I got down to working with the cocoa mass. In hopes of making the cocoa particles finer, I tried to give it a second grind in the coffee grinder, but the poor thing had finally had it and started jamming. Thankfully, there was a blender in the hostel kitchen. I broke the cocoa mass into pieces and tossed it into the blender:

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Let’s hope the blender does a better job of grinding the chocolate mass than the coffee grinder did.

After several minutes of grinding, I got powdered cocoa mass but nothing finer. I decided to abandon making it finer and tossed in the ground sugar, so at least the blender would have a chance to start the mixing process:

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Nope, blender does not grind cocoa mass better than a coffee grinder. I added some sugar to start the mixing process.

Now that the cocoa mass-sugar mix was ready, it was time to start the chocolate making process. Since direct heat is anathema to chocolate, I fashioned a double boiler out of pots found in the kitchen.

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The makeshift double boiler; at least the aluminum ensures quick heat transfer.

I let the water heat for a few minutes, then I tossed the cocoa butter (about 1 oz.) into the double boiler. It immediately started to melt and release the most amazing smell ever–think chocolate combined with melted butter and vanilla.

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Cocoa butter melting. If you ever want to make your room smell like heaven, melt some cocoa butter.

Once the cocoa butter was melted, I tossed in the whole chocolate-sugar mixture and began stirring:

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Amazingly, the cocoa mass began to melt and smooth out, so that it was nowhere as grainy as I thought it would be! I kept stirring, and the mass continued to melt until I had shiny, smooth chocolate:

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What followed was a long process of taste-refining. I stuck my finger in the chocolate and found it was still extremely dark and bitter. I tossed in a couple more spoonfuls of sugar, and a bit milk powder, and then tried it again. It was better, but still too dark for my tastes. I repeated this process until I had something that tasted like something between a milk and dark chocolate. The final ratio of ingredients in my chocolate was probably closer to the following:

4 parts cocoa mass
1 part cocoa butter
2.5 parts sugar
2.5 parts milk powder

Having somehow accomplished fermenting, roasting, grinding and melting chocolate all in a hostel setting, I ran into a final challenge: how do I temper chocolate without a concher or some kind of surface to mix it on? Tempering is the mixing of chocolate in the right conditions such that it will form ideal crystals. It’s what gives chocolate its characteristic gloss and snap. There are two tempering methods: you either use a thermometer and mix chocolate continuously at very specific temperatures, or you seed your newly-made chocolate with an already-tempered piece of chocolate and it magically teaches your chocolate to form the right crystals***.

Unsurprisingly, the hostel kitchen didn’t have a thermometer. I also didn’t have any chocolate to seed with. I settled on the solution of instead reheating my chocolate once more on the double boiler while mixing continuously, then continuing to mix for several minutes after taking off the heat. Finally, I spooned the chocolate into molds (our old leftovers container, used previously for the cacao mass):

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I spoon the chocolate into a clean leftovers container for cooling after my approximated tempering attempt.

Since I wasn’t optimistic about the chocolate flavor, I also ground some cloves and sprinkled the clove powder on top of one of the chocolate bars. I figured that at worst, the strong spice of the cloves would help offset any burnt flavors in the chocolate.

I tapped the chocolate containers a few times to remove bubbles, then I left them to set. Unfortunately, a few hours later they were still pretty runny:

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The chocolate bars setting (very) slowly. The bar on the left is plain, while the bar on the right has powdered cloves sprinkled on top.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as Jose had mentioned that too much cocoa butter might prevent the chocolate from solidifying. I had read that I shouldn’t put chocolate in the fridge to set because moisture will damage it or cause seizing. But I figured committing heresy and having poor quality chocolate was better than it spilling everywhere or having it filled with flies who drowned in chocolatey paradise. I placed both bars in a paper bag and slid them into the fridge.

Miraculously, when I pulled the chocolate out an hour later, it wasn’t ruined and had hardened quite nicely. There was some evidence for bloom on the tops of the bars, but it was nowhere as bad as I thought it would be with my tempering job.

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Flipping them out of the molds also revealed that the bars had a fairly nice shine, despite my approximated tempering. Whether I had actually done a good job, I had just been lucky, or the patterns on the molds had helped set the chocolate properly remains to be determined. Maybe it was all three.

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Then came the real test: the taste. Stoytcho and I snapped off bits of each bar and tried it. The chocolate was darker than I expected, losing some of the milky flavor during the cooling phase. The words I would use to describe the flavor profile would be bittersweet, fruity, and slightly burnt. It was definitely not the most balanced set of flavors, but it wasn’t awful. And the cloves bar was actually downright tasty, as the spiciness of the cloves helped offset the vague burnt undertones in the chocolate****.

So there you have it, everyone. Against all odds, poor resources, and an utter lack of experience, I have forged chocolate in hostel kitchens across two countries. I am a cooking god.

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I pose with my creations. This success bodes well for my attempts at ridiculous culinary acrobatics in the future.

Attributions:

This project would not have been possible without the magic of the internet, Google, and the following resources: Kojo Designs, The Ultimate Chocolate Blog, Bean-to-Bar, Chocolate Alchemy, and José from La Tiendita de Chocolate in Guatapé. If you’re looking to make your own chocolate, their knowledge is phenomenal.

Notes:

*Ever wonder how the % on your chocolate bar is worked out? Well, if you’re working with cacao mass like I am, it’s simply the ratio of chocolate to other ingredients by mass. So an 80% chocolate bar is something akin to 5 oz. of chocolate and 1 oz. of sugar.

**Well, not really in hand. It would have melted. The melting temperature of cocoa butter is just under human body temperature, which is why chocolate melts in your hand (or your mouth).

***It’s not actually magic, but the more amazing power of science! “Seeding” a solution with a seed crystal, a piece of the material where the molecules have settled down the way you want, is fairly common in chemistry. You can use it to make awesome crystals.

****I should note here that the love of the clove bar was not universal; Stoytcho most definitely preferred the plain dark chocolate bar. But he likes extremely bitter, dark chocolate, which makes him weird. Right? RIGHT???

Heroes Around the World: José of La Tiendita de Chocolate

Heroes Around the World highlights amazing people we meet on our travels. From pursuing their dreams to changing the world, we find their stories inspiring. We hope you do too.

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The street leading to La Tiendita de Chocolate.

Down at the end of this street, near the base of the stairs, is a little chocolate shop that goes by the apt name of La Tiendita De Chocolate. Located in the Colombian town of Guatapé, La Tiendita sells delectable chocolate desserts of all kinds, from bars of pure dark chocolate to creamy bonbons. The chocolate bars shimmer in their clear wrappers, boasting flavors like Himalayan sea salt and pink peppercorns. The bonbons, wrapped in tissue paper and foil, carry equally refined taste combinations: almond, rum, tequila, or caramel with roasted cacao nibs.

Every piece of chocolate is handmade onsite by the owner and man behind La Tiendita, José, his wife, or their assistants. When we visited, José was busy behind the counter showing off some new chocolates. We had initially planned to make a quick purchase to nibble on our walk through town, but the panoply of options made it hard to choose which. José laughed at this, and handed us a piece of chocolate. “Try this,” he said. It was a dark chocolate truffle flavored with tequila and cream.

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Bon-bons filled with caramel and cacao nibs sit in a display case at La Tiendita de Chocolate. The store sells a panoply of chocolate bars and flavors, with a focus on dark chocolate.

I’ve encountered a lot of chocolate in my life, both commercial and gourmet, but nothing quite like what José makes. His focus is on dark chocolate, which he makes from personally-sourced cacao beans. He says he spends a lot of time looking for new bean sources and interesting flavors, which occupies him whenever he’s not shopkeeping. I’d believe it. Biting into a piece of José chocolate reveals complex and fruity flavors. There’s a tang of citrus at the front, followed by a more mellow cherry taste, and the unmistakable bitterness of a dark chocolate that somehow lacks the harsh burnt flavor I’m used to finding in other dark chocolate. I find myself longing for a glass of wine instead of a glass of milk to accompany the chocolate.

Piece after piece, we sample several chocolates in José has on offer. Each is fine blend, with additions to the chocolate playing on its fruitiness. We discuss the flavors with him, and he guides us through his sources for beans on a flavor map of South America: He points out regions that produce cacao beans rich in chocolatey flavors, and other regions that produce beans with lighter, more floral profiles. His knowledge on chocolate is incredible, and we stay with him for hours, taking a virtual trip of South America’s cacao growing regions. At one point, he even pulls a fresh cacao pod out of storage and shares some of the fruit with us.

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Bars of dark chocolate are studded with spicy pink peppercorns. José, the owner, makes his chocolate from bean-to-bar at La Tiendita and has developed all of his own recipes.

We learn that José wasn’t always a chocolate-maker. “I used to work as a field producer for FoxTelecolombia,” he says in perfect English. But he was always experimenting with chocolate. “It was my passion!” he laughs, “And eventually my wife asked ‘Why don’t you quit your job and follow your passion?’ That’s how we got started.” José has been making chocolate ever since, experimenting with everything he can get his hands on and eventually opening La Tiendita here in Guatapé, his wife’s home town. Now he spends his days managing the shop, creating chocolates from his recipes, and crafting new recipes.

But the most inspiring thing about José is his goal of building a gourmet Colombian chocolate an international sensation. He sees a future for Colombian chocolate like that of Ecuador and Peru, whose gourmet chocolate industries have exploded in the past decade as consumers seek higher quality. “Right now, there are very few gourmet chocolate-makers in Colombia and it can be difficult to get supplies,” José says, “We have (the company) Luker, but that’s it, so I make chocolate to show the world how great Colombian chocolate can be.” He tells us how visitors to Guatapé have found his shop and have become obsessed. Once, two Japanese visitors left with two full cases of his chocolate bars. Visitors have also sometimes sent him ingredients he can’t get in Colombia, like flavored liqueurs. All of it has helped him grow La Tiendita and make better chocolate, although he still makes chocolate out of love rather than for profit. “The store may fail, but I will always make chocolate,” he says.

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Truffles flavored with tequila, an alcohol you wouldn’t normally imagine pairing with chocolate. José’s goal is for gourmet Colombian chocolate to be as renowned as chocolate from Ecuador or Peru, but he still makes chocolates out of love for the art, pushing him to create new flavor combinations.

La Piedra: A photoessay for would-be travellers

We set out for the La Piedra at 7:00 am on foot, walking westward along Calle 32. At the edge of town, the sidewalk gave way to a dirt path that ran alongside the road for a few hundred meters, then rose up onto a ridge. We trudged upward with our day packs, and at the top crossed a bridge over the road.

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The bridge across the road

The path on the other side was shaded from the already hot sun by trees and bramble. Blackberries and blueberries grew wild alongside the path, and the hardpack of the dirt suggested this was not just a hiking trail for tourists, but something still used by the locals to travel between Guatapé and El Peñol. The path dipped back down to run alongside the road, passing the lakeshore and local swimming holes. Then it disappeared entirely, and we were left to walk along the road. We had gone less than a hundred meters when a car passing by us honked and slowed. “¿A dónde van?” the driver shouted to us. “¡La Piedra!” we shouted back. What followed was the standard price haggling – he offered us a ride for 8000 pesos, and we laughed and declined. “We’re already halfway there, and we don’t have much money for a ride.” He laughed too and said “Fine, fine. But either you pay for a ride, or you have to pay for new shoes when those wear out from walking. 3000 pesos.” We accepted, and got in the car.

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Our ride to La Piedra

The ride reduced our remaining journey time to mere minutes. We sat in the back on leather seats as our driver quizzed us on the usual. “Where are you from?” “The United States” “Ah, traveling?” “Yes, around the world!” “Hm, wow…” We arrived at the base of La Piedra, and our driver insisted on driving us up the hill to the entrance. At the top he let us out and we paid. That’s when I got a good look at the car. Clean and polished, it was clearly a prized possession. We didn’t get picked up by a taxi driver, but by an enterprising guy out for his daily drive. I asked to take a picture. “Sure,” he smiled, and polished the hood of the car.

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Our driver shines his car so I can take a photo

La Piedra, the monolith

You don’t realize how tall La Piedra is until you’re at its base. At 200 meters high, this granite monolith towers over everything else in the countryside. And with everything that sticks out from the surrounding countryside, there have been lots of ideas about how it got there, from fallen meteorite to aliens (I couldn’t find any source on the internet to confirm that anyone actually believed this). Geologic studies of the rock, though, suggest that it’s the natural product of the shifting tectonic plates; as the Nazca and South American tectonic plates collided, they pushed up the cooled remnants of giant, ancient magma chambers. La Piedra is one of these remnants, called granitoid plutons (described here in these video flavors: fun or extensive). Millions of years of environmental exposure then weathered La Piedra into the smooth monolith.

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The stairs to the top of La Piedra, as viewed from the bottom

While the native people of the area originally worshipped the stone, the local farmers largely viewed it as a nuisance. After three locals scaled it for the first time in 1954 using wooden planks wedged into a crevice, someone must have realized the tourist potential. The three climbers were immortalized with plaques at the base of La Piedra, and one even got his own statue.

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One of the three climbers that first summited La Piedra

Nowadays, climbing La Piedra is pretty easy. An enterprising individual or group from Guatapé has built a set of stairs to the top, and 740 vertical steps upward will take you to the highest point. And at 18,000 pesos per person for foreigners, they’re probably making a fair bit of money. This roused the neighboring town of El Peñol, who also laid claim to La Piedra. To put an end to the dispute, Guatapé once commissioned painters to write the town’s name on the rock. They got as far as “G” and a single line of the “U” before a supposed mob from El Peñol and legal action put a permanent stop to the painting (the “GI” can still be seen today). The anecdote seems amusingly provincial until you realize that it’s a zero-sum fight for tourism in a country where a quarter of people live in poverty. And that tourist money means less backbreaking work in the fields.

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La Piedra, from entrance kiosk to the top

We bought our tickets at the kiosk above and began to climb. While the staircase is an impressive engineering feat, it’s easy to find places where poor planning and reality collide. There are seemingly random platforms separating staircases, some sets of stairs lead to nowhere, and looking down the whole thing looks like a funhouse.

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A view down the flights of stairs. This picture includes stairs a flight below us (left), stairs from the ascent (top-right), and a dead-viewing platform (bottom-right). Yeah, it’s disorienting.

The stairs aren’t the only thing clinging to La Piedra. As we ascend, we can see plants growing directly on the rock face. They’re bromeliads–plants that we’re used to seeing on trees in the jungle. Here, they use their adhesive roots to cling to the rock, while their leaves capture rainfall and mist for water, channeling it down to the roots. This same water carries all of the nutrients the plant needs, often in the form of fine dust blown from around the world.

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Bromeliads flourish on the sheer rockface of La Piedra

We keep climbing, and about halfway up we reach a small viewing platform with a Virgin Mary statue, somehow lugged up 350 stairs. From the number of rosaries, it looks like many come here to pray.

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A statue of the Virgin Mary greets climbers halfway up. The sheer volume of rosaries suggests this is a popular prayer location.

Finally, after 647 stairs, we’ve reached the top of the rock! The remaining 93 stairs are part of a tower built on the top of the rock, but we’ve got to take a breather. We get some ice cream and enjoy the scenery. It’s nearly 10:00 am now, and the sun’s rays are intense, searing everything they touch. We seek shelter in the shade.

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Resting at the top of La Piedra, before we climb the tower.

Even this high up, we’re not alone. Small wasps flit around, lapping up any moisture they can find. They’re particularly fond of drops of molten ice cream.

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A wasp rests with us in the shade. Despite their small size (they’re as large as a grain of rice), they do sting, although the pain is brief.

After half an hour’s rest, we tackle the last 93 stairs to the top. The tower is narrow and has a single winding staircase to the top, with three side doorways that open to souvenir shops. The stairwell is brilliantly built to only accommodate traffic in one direction, so as people come down the stairs we have to duck into one of these shops, giving us a chance to browse the wares. If we didn’t have ten more months of travel after this where I had to carry every possession on my back, I probably would’ve bought something.

Finally, after 83 steps, we emerge onto a viewing platform where the final ten steps to the top await. We take turns taking pictures of each other from the vantage point of step number 740:

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The view from the top of the tower.

Looking down, everything seems miniature. Tiny houses and trees dot the lakeshore, a palette of forest green vegetation on emerald green water.

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Houses along the waterfont below us

Slivers of road snake off into the distance, back towards Medellín, which helped create Guatapé’s aquatic beauty. The water pictured here isn’t from a natural lake, but a reservoir created when the public utility of Medellín, Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), built a hydroelectric dam along the Nare River in 1970. The project resulted in the resettlement of 5,000 people and eventually flooded more than 2,000 hectares of land, including the original town of El Peñol and part of Guatapé. It’s also driven a boom in tourism, with boat tours and aquatic play parks.

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Calle 32 snakes around the water and runs back toward Medellín

The reservoir is visible from the ground, but the scale of change it wrought on the landscape isn’t evident until we come up here. A speedboat slides soundlessly along the water’s surface, leaving ripples that radiate outward for miles.

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A speedboat on the water leaves ripples that extend for miles.

The reservoir stretches seemingly endlessly, flooded valleys interrupted by islands and peninsulas. The only noise besides the chatter of tourists is the wind whooshing across the platform. The clouds drift lazily by in the distance. We could stay here for hours watching them go by, but we’re getting sunburned.

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View stretching out toward towards the mountains

We climb back down the tower and then head down the descending stairwell, which is a separate path mercifully shaded by the ascending stairwell. We watch people’s heads bob up and down along the ascending path, and looking out, we can barely see the reservoir and forests on the ground.

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Taking the descending stairs, with the ascending stairs zig-zagging above us.

Seven-hundred and forty stairs later, we’re back on the ground at the base of La Piedra. We’ve heard rumors from town that there are caves at the base of the rock, so we skip the main road down and take a dirt path that hugs the side of the rock. We wander through what I’m pretty sure is someone’s backyard. The path continues alongside La Piedra, eventually leaving behind houses for open field. Then, a quarter of the way around the rock, we hit a barbed wire fence. We could cross it, but it’s been patched several times, so whoever owns this land clearly wants this fence here, so we abandon our quest.

Back at the entrance La Piedra, we ask a few locals about the existence of caves. No one we ask knows of any caves in the area, and one man points us out to the mountains in the distance. If there are any caves into La Piedra, they’re a well-kept secret–the entrance may be on private property, or may have been submerged by waters of reservoir. It’s possible there never were caves, that their existence was a myth. But without exploring the whole area, it’s impossible to know.

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An orb weaver spider (likely Argiope argentata) weaves a web in the weeds at the base of La Piedra

Technical Specs

  • Getting there: Take a moto-taxi or walk westward from Guatape along the main road, Calle 32.
  • Cost: We spent 3000 COP on a ride halfway there, 18,000 COP per person for admission, and 4,000 COP for an ice cream at the top. Total: 43,000 COP (~$14.00 USD)
  • Time spent: 1.5 hours travelling to/from, 3 hours at La Piedra.

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