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smoked parma ham
© Yana Gayvoronskaya

Croatia's best delicacies

The best food produce made in Croatia, protected at a national and European level

By Marc Rowlands
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Incredible seafood from the morning's catch, eaten before a backdrop of the sun setting across the Adriatic near Dubrovnik. Indulgent slices of truffle shaved onto fresh pasta dishes in sight of a hilltop town in Istria. Smoke-flavoured barbequed meats served on a Split or Hvar terrace alongside smiling friends. There's a whole world of unforgettable gastronomic experiences in store for any visitor to Croatia. However, some of these are not uniquely Croatian. Similar can be found elsewhere on the Mediterranean. But, Croatia does have its own unique food produce and some of it is protected at both a national level and a European level. Three European Union schemes of geographical indications, PDO, PGI and TSG, exist to distinguish traditional and unique produce. They ensure integrity by dictating that only products genuinely originating from a certain region (often ones with unique geographical or climatic assets) are allowed to be identified as such. Croatia has several products protected in this way at European level. Here you can find out about each of them and we recommend you try as many as possible while in the country in order to gain a true insight into the great gastronomic delights of authentic Croatia.

RECOMMENDED: Everything you need to know about Istrian olive oil

Croatia's best delicacies

Istrian olives
© Istarsko Maslinovo Ulje - Augustin

Istrian olive oil

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Istria is a region of beautiful coastline, hilltop towns, river valleys, untouched countryside and gently-rolling waves of olive groves and vineyards which cover the undulating terrain. Istrian olive oil can be as varied as the region's geography and a range of indigenous olives, like Istarska bjelica, buža, rošinjola, karbonaca and žižolera, each imparts different tastes. If you're a first-time buyer, what you really need to know is simply that you've stumbled upon one of the finest olive oil-growing regions in the world. The size of Istria's relatively small output (compared to, say, Italy or Spain) would keep their products quite secret if they didn't keep winning so many prestigious awards on the global stage.

Dalmatian prosciutto (Dalmatinski pršut)
© Dalmatinski pršut

Dalmatian prosciutto

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Of all the distinct prosciutto produced in Croatia, that which is made in the most-southerly regions packs the biggest punch. There are no airs and graces of subtlety to this flavour fest; Dalmatian prosciutto loudly announces its attendance before even arriving at your mouth. Wood smoked and dried for a minimum of 12 months, Dalmatian prosciutto easily stands up to the no-nonsense, full-flavoured red wines grown in the same region. Proven to have been made in Dalmatia since at least Roman times, the dry and sunny climate assist in the long maturing period. The meat's preservation comes strictly and solely from the initial salting and the subsequent smoking process. Tourism to the region over the last century has helped the fame of Dalmatian prosciutto spread internationally, as well it should.

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Paški sir (Pag cheese)
© Ina Van Hateren

Pag cheese

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Fierce, seasonal winds like the Bura deposit a thin film of sea salt across the island of Pag. Impacted by these two corrosive elements, only the most-hardy of vegetation survives. This includes wildflowers and wild herbs, such as the sage. This film of salt and these herbs find their way into the diet of the island's sheep, imparting their distinct and aromatic flavours into Pag cheese. Left to age from between five to eighteen months, younger Pag cheeses are more creamy, hold a fresher aroma and appear yellow in colour. The older cheeses are darker, edging towards brown, have a much more pungent aroma and are harder, more grainy on the tongue in texture and hold a fuller, more mature flavour. It is best presented at room temperature, allowing the full aroma and flavour to be released. Often it is cut into thin, long triangles and will be the star turn on a plate. Otherwise, it appears alongside prosciutto on a platter of delicacies. In each case, as always, its best friends on the pallette come from nearby; figs, grapes, olives, anchovies or sage-flavoured Pag honey. It can elsewhere be found in pasta dishes and risottos. The strong flavour of Pag cheese means it stands up well against some punchy spices, like black pepper and also the full-flavoured red wines made elsewhere in Dalmatia.

Lika lamb (Lička janjetina)
© Licka janjetina i rakija

Lika lamb

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Lika lamb comes from a specific breed of Curly sheep, raised only in Lika-Senj and Zadar counties. In the summertime, Lika's lambs are put out to pasture in the foothills of the region's mountains where they graze on a multitude of wild herbs and a wide variety of vegetation. This diet contributes to the distinct taste and aroma of Lika lamb. Because of this active, outdoor life, the meat is quite substantial, coming with a firm, yellowish marbling of fat. Its flavour is quite potent even within the young lamb, strong enough that it edges towards the taste of mutton. This makes Lika lamb perfect for both roasting and stewing, as well as the more familiar spit-roasting method of preparation which is traditional across Croatia.

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Poljički soparnik
© Poljički soparnik Ružice i Nikole Milićević-Zvečanje

Poljički Soparnik

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Unlike the excessive amounts of pastry that surround or base almost everything you can buy in a Croatian bakery, soparnik has just two very thin layers of pastry sitting atop and below its filling. Traditionally baked in a huge, circular portion inside a giant peka or the kind of oven used to make proper pizza, it looks quite dainty and delicate when cut into diamond-shaped portions. But, it packs a powerful punch of flavour. Its filling is comprised of the spinach-like leaves of ubiquitously-used chard blitva, onions, parsley and garlic (the latter sometimes included in the filling or otherwise sprinkled on top after its baking, alongside a brushing of olive oil). Soparnik is rarely tried by visitors because it's tough to make and the experts at doing so come from a seldom-visited part of inland Dalmatia. It comes from the Poljica area, near Omiš and is a truly unique Croatian specialty. If you only try one pastry dish while in Croatia (and, if you can find it), it should definitely be the incredible soparnik.

Zagorje turkey (Zagorski puran)
© Puran Zagorskih Brega

Zagorje turkey

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The only native breed of turkey in Croatia is that which is farmed in the traditional Zagorje area, today's Krapina-Zagorje county and Varaždin county, north of the capital Zagreb. It is within the region's pastures that Zagorje turkey live. They are never reared in cages. The average weight of the male Zagorje turkey is 6 kg, the females 4 kg. Most often than not you’ll see a female served for holidays, not older than eight months as these yield the most tender meat. Croatians who treat themselves to a Zagorje turkey tend to reserve it for Christmas. Usually served with Zagorje mlinci and side dishes such as salads, few things are more evocative of Christmas Day than the smell of a freshly roasted Zagorje turkey wafting through the home.

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Town of Korčula
© jakobradlgruber

Korčula olive oil

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These days, the island of Korčula is best known as a tourist destination and as a producer of wines and olive oil. Korčula's is the most southerly-grown of all Croatia's protected olive oils. The extreme amounts of sunshine visited upon the island, plus the distinct, indigenous varieties used in its composition, lastovka and drobnica, give this oil its mildly bitter, olive leaf flavour. Offering a more piquant taste on the tongue than Croatia's other protected oils, the best cooks take this into consideration when selecting it as a base for salad dressings or similar.

Istrian prosciutto (Istarski pršut)
© Istarski pršut

Istrian prosciutto

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Neither smoked like the prosciutto of Dalmatia nor blasted intensely by winds like the seasonal Bura, Istrian pršut is instead helped along in its natural drying process by the removal of the pigskin prior to salting. The result of this distinct process is meat which can be extremely delicate in flavour. It is best served sliced as thinly as possible. It lends itself well to moreish sessions of nibbling, the lean, meat strips melting in the mouth and best washed down with a glass of Istrian Malvasia.

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Ogulin
© Turistička zajednica Grada Ogulina

Sour cabbage from Ogulin

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The Ogulin valley has summer temperatures which shift dramatically between day and night. This night cooling, coupled with the relatively high humidity in the valley, allow dew and moisture to bathe Ogulin's cabbages for the entire growing season. Traditionally fermented in October and ready in time for the winter months, this resulting sauerkraut or, locally, kiseli kupus is picked and processed by hand, eventually ending up in soups, stews and other favourite Croatian dishes like sarma.

tangerine
© subbotina

Neretva mandarins

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Within the rich soils of the river Neretva's valley, many fruits such as watermelons and lemons are cultivated. Between Ploče, Metković and Opuzen lies an area where, almost exclusively, high-yielding citrus fruit trees have replaced the vineyards which once grew here. Less than 100 years old, the mandarin orchards here originated from one single Japanese variety. But, today, around ten slightly different varieties are cultivated, allowing the harvest to be staged over many weeks between the end of summer and throughout autumn. Over one million of the moderately-sized mandarin trees yield over 60,000 tonnes of fruit each year. Nearer in appearance to a tangerine than an orange, and slightly less acidic, Neretva mandarins are an easily peeled and easily segmented fruit which are highly prized across Croatia. Their repute has been ensured because of their consistency; they only ever hit the market when they are ripe, wonderfully fragrant and extremely sweet. When picked, they are not simply plucked from the plant. Instead, like the vine tomatoes you see in the supermarket, they are individually cut from the tree with the stem and sometimes a leaf or two still attached. This ensures no diminishing of the fruit's sweetness on its journey to market and then the home.

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Slavonian honey (Slavonski med)
© Slavonski Med OPG Tihomir Mrkonjić

Slavonian honey

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Slavonia contains large areas of untouched forest where wild boar, deer and other animals roam freely. Similarly, its uncultivated meadows allow wildflowers and herbs to flourish alongside the large fields of sunflowers and rapeseed which are grown there. All of this flora imparts flavour into the honey produced in Slavonia and neighbouring Baranja, where beekeeping is a long-held tradition. There are more than 400 registered beekeepers in Slavonia and Baranja today, producing more than 200 tonnes of delicious honey each year. The flavour of Slavonian honey can vary from village to village and from month to month, depending on what's grown locally and which plants are in season.   

Drniš prosciutto (Drniški pršut)
© Turistička zajednica Grada Drniša

Drniš prosciutto

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Produced in much the same way at the pršut from the rest of Dalmatia, as this one is actually made in the region's hinterland, on the other side of the Dinaric Alps, climatic differences separate the two and grant Drniš prosciutto its distinct properties. Summer temperatures here can differ greatly from those where visitors are sunning themselves by day on nearby beaches. It's this micro-climate, visited by both the cold and dry Bura wind of the coast, and the warmer Jugo wind from the continental side, which help give this particular Dalmatian prosciutto a flavour all of its own.

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Cres olives
© Ekstra djevičansko maslinovo ulje Cres - Macmalić olive oil & delicacies

Cres olive oil

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A popular place for retirees, the active inhabitants of Cres island are today engaged in tourism, agriculture, beekeeping, olive growing, fishing and the rearing of livestock. Cres is particularly noted for its sheep who freely roam the rugged, hilly terrain and graze between the olive trees which are grown here. This helps keep the olive groves free of weeds and damaging, invasive plant species and also fertilises the soil. Largely undertaken by a cooperative of small-scale growers, the island's olive oil production today uses slivnjača, plominka and rosuja olives, varieties which only grow here. A minimum of 90% indigenous olives must be used in order for the olive oil to bear the name Cres olive oil and it is these distinct varieties that help give the oil its unique taste. The Kvarner islands of Krk and Cres are two of Croatia's most northerly. They are also the two most northerly on which olive cultivation occurs. The slightly cooler temperatures here assist in both the success of Cres's indigenous olives and in the process of extracting oil from them. The olives are picked and processed extremely quickly, and at cool temperatures, to allow the extracted oil to retain the aromatic properties and as much of the flavour as possible which exists naturally in the olive. The resultant oil is bright green in colour. It is accompanied by fresh and extremely fragrant aromas of wild herbs and the general outdoors and should be reserved for salad dressings or used as a simple condiment.

Pag salt (Paška sol)
© Solana Pag d.d.

Pag salt

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If you sit down to a meal in Croatia and are presented with pink salt from the Himalayas with which to season your meal, try to keep your disbelief silent. But, yes, you're right, it did take an obscene amount of carbon fuel-burning to transport that salt here. And, yes, it was completely unnecessary to do so, as Croatia makes some of the finest sea salt in the world. Pag island’s salt pans are among the oldest on the eastern Adriatic. They were first mentioned in 10th-century chronicles. The island's salt, which is still made using evaporation techniques that would look familiar to the islanders' ancient ancestors, contains all of the minerals to be found in the crystal clear seas which continuously flow around Pag. If you're preparing a dressing using amazing Croatian olive oil and lemons, to liven up locally-grown salad ingredients, which will accompany a fine selection of Croatian cold meats and cheeses, all to be washed down with peerless Croatian wine, there genuinely is no other salt you should be using than that which is made in Croatia.

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Baranja kulen (Baranjski kulen)
© Drazen Pajtlar

Baranja kulen

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Baranja kulen is a richly-red smoked sausage and, much the same as its Slavonian counterpart is made with only prime cuts of pork meat. Though some may disagree, in explaining the difference between them, you could say that the Baranja kulen is slightly denser, even more lean and, owing to the Hungarian influence, spicier, with a greater amount of hot paprika used. The traditional shape of Baranja kulen is a big indicator – it's an irregular shape, almost like an unformed mass of clay. As part of a buffet, a sandwich filling, or served as an indulgent snack alongside good bread, good cheese and a glass of good wine, it's tough to beat.

Bjelovar kvargl
© Grad Bjelovar

Bjelovarski kvargl

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One of Bjelovar's longest-produced specialities is cheese and its quality is renowned across Croatia. Highly distinctive in appearance, like an orange-coloured, coned-shaped Christmas decoration, Bjelovarski kvargl is a soft cheese made from cow's milk. The fresh cheese is mixed with salt, sometimes garlic, but always the paprika which grants its colour. It is then set into its distinctive shape, which is always done by hand, before being smoked which not only adds a wonderful flavour, but also helps to preserve it. After smoking, it is always left to cool naturally before anyone can tuck in. The end product is significantly more dry, firm and dense than when the cheese is fresh. It's great alongside sliced meats, with homemade bread and served with a sharp glass of local white wine.

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Varaždin cabbage (Varaždinski kupus)
© Monchai Tudsamalee

Varaždin cabbage

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Today, more than 400 varieties of cabbage are cultivated around the world. China is the largest producer of cabbage, followed by India and then Russia. The inhabitants of the latter annually consume the world's most cabbage per person, not that you could guess from the frequency with which the vegetable appears on Croatian tables. The indigenous variety grown in the rich soils around Varaždin has long been a year-round part of locals' diets. Cultivated here since the second half of the 18th century, Varaždin cabbage can be grown as a spring cabbage, going on to appear grated in refreshing and simply-dressed summer salads. But, it is also hardy enough to withstand the extreme cold which can visit the region in winter. The leaves, which contain more than 90% water, have a sharp and pleasingly bitter flavour and are so durable that they stand up well to the lengthy cooking times of soups and stews.

Pag lamb (Paška janjetina)
© Pag Tourist Board

Pag lamb

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In the late autumn and winter months, the fierce winds that blast the island of Pag lift the seawater onto the land which, after evaporation, carpets the broken patches of flora with a thin layer of salt. Existing between a difficult terrain of sharp, rocky hills, this flora contains indigenous grasses, wildflowers and herbs, like rosemary and the sage which famously flavours Pag honey. The flavours of this salt, herbs and other island vegetation are imparted to the sheep who graze there and, in turn, to their lambs via milk. This is what grants Pag lamb its distinct, fine flavour. Pag lamb is very much considered a treat and reserved for special occasions. Their meat is exceptionally tender, moist and juicy when correctly cooked and has a full flavour which nevertheless holds many subtle notes. A recorded favourite of yesteryear's European royal households, to best appreciate Pag lamb and its distinct notes, nothing other than salt and olive oil is required as a marinade and seasoning, although the spit-roasted version does pick up a tantalizing smokey taste. Served simply roasted or grilled is the best way to fully check out the flavour, the dish best accompanied by potatoes and a dressed salad.

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Šolta olive
© Šoltansko maslinovo ulje

Šolta olive oil

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Croatia has several indigenous types of olives which help gift varying flavours to the olive oil produced on the islands and all along the coast. On Šolta, the varieties used for olive oil production are levantinka and oblica. All of the olives used to make Šolta olive oil are picked by hand. They are strictly processed within the first 48 hours after picking. This ensures that the luscious green oil you get in the bottle is as fresh as if you plucked an olive off the branch and squeezed its oil directly into your mouth. A vibrant and fragrant oil, it should be reserved for cold use and not heated within any cooking process  

Meso z tiblice
© Silverije

Meso 'z tiblice

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A centuries-old method of preserving meat, a tiblica was originally always made of wood. Even after modern refrigerators replaced the cold store, larder or pantry as a more-preferred place to keep food fresh, this dish has retained its popularity. This is explained by the unique flavours the preserving processes impart. This high calorie and quite salty dish has long helped sustain the people of Međimurje through the winter. Some of the finest cuts of pork are reserved Meso 'z tiblice. So involved is the dish's preparation, it would be a wasteful use of time to do otherwise. The premium pork cuts are first rubbed with garlic and salt, then left to cure for several weeks in the brine produced naturally by this salting. After curing, extra flavour is added by a further cooking process such as smoking. Simultaneously, pig fat is prepared (usually by smoking), before being minced with bay leaves and peppercorns. Depending on the family recipe, other pork products, such as smoked pigs tongue or preserved sausage, can be found in Meso 'z tiblice. The fine cuts, flavoured fat and family favourites are then added to the tiblica, layer by layer, ensuring that no air remains between the ingredients of the tightly-packed concoction. The finished tiblica is then stored for a minimum of a month and a half in order for the flavour of the dish to mature. Međimursko meso 'z tiblice is usually brought to the table in thick slices, alongside the pepper and bay leaf-flavoured fat. This fat is then spread on a rustic, homemade bread like sourdough before the slices of fine meat are placed atop. Meso 'z tiblice is served either as an appetizer or as a cold snack, commonly accompanied by sides of smoked or fresh cheese, sour cream and slices of uncooked onion, their sharpness cutting through the dish's indulgent fat content.

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Zagorje mlinci (Zagorski mlinci)
© Mlin Jertovec doo

Zagorje mlinci

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Anyone looking for authentic Croatia need look no further than Zagorje. The cuisine of Zagorje has developed with little interference other than what it's possible to produce from its rich land. Feeding the city by daily delivery, Zagreb cuisine is essentially Zagorje cuisine. There are no wild or outlandish ingredients to the thin, baked sheets of pasta that are Zagorje mlinci – it's just water, salt and flour. Cooked on a hot plate, like a flatbread from the east, the absence of any raising agent means mlinci do not rise in preparation. They just dry, crisp up and develop a few brown spots (which is the way to tell if they're homemade). They are traditionally served with meat dishes, the sheets being split up into strips or shards and recooked in the juices and fats of the bird or joint that you're roasting.

Krk prosciutto (Krčki pršut)
© BRUJO-KRK

Krk prosciutto

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Unlike its Dalmatian counterpart, the pršut produced on the island of Krk is not smoked. Nor is it air-dried with the skin off, like that made in Istria. Instead, the strong, seasonal winds which visit the island, such as the Bura, assist in the natural drying process. Holding a more delicate flavour than smoked varieties, this richly-fatted meat pairs extremely well with the sharp and dry white wines more typically produced in the region. Pepper, rosemary and bay leaf are added to the preserving salt before the drying begins and these flavours sneak into the sweet, slow-matured taste.

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Lika potatoes (Lički krumpir)
© Lički krumpir

Lika potatoes

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Potatoes from Lika contain more starch, vitamins, minerals, and fibre than almost any of the others grown in Croatia. These properties are attributable to the rich soil which exists there. Having yellow-brown skin and a white-yellow interior, these are the dry kind of potatoes perfect for roasting or making homemade, thick-cut fries. When cooked in either of these ways, they crisp up on the outside while turning incredibly soft in the middle. They're also great for potato salad, potato pies, and soups, so long as you're careful – unlike their waxy cousins, these will break up and disintegrate if overcooked. In Lika, they are put into stews, used as an ingredient in the one-pot peka style of cooking or served as a side to roasted meats and the popular trout which is successfully farmed here.

Slavonian kulen (Slavonski kulen)
© Domaći Slavonski Kulen

Slavonian kulen

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The king of all Croatian sausages, kulen is a richly-red smoked pork sausage, prepared in Slavonia and neighbouring Baranja using only the finest cuts of the pig. The sausage is quite lean, moist and slightly piquant from the paprika and garlic which are used to flavour it. Traditionally, the home-reared pig only contained enough premium meat to make just one kulen, so this is a real treat. As such, it's never cooked or used as an ingredient, but savoured in thin strips, paired with good bread, cheese and a sharp Slavonian white wine like Traminac or Graševina.

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Krk olive
© UTLA olive oil

Krk olive oil

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The Kvarner island of Krk is one of the northernmost Croatian islands to produce olive oil. The slightly cooler temperatures here help to preserve all of the qualities and flavours of the oils naturally occurring in the unprocessed olives. Extra care is taken to ensure temperatures remain low, even when the oil is being mechanically pressed and so anyone attempting to put this fragrant, bright green, extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan or, Heaven forbid, use it for deep fat frying, should be banished from the kitchen. Salad dressings or a delicious condiment in which to dip homemade bread would be our recommendations for its use. It's so tasty, you might find yourself forgoing the cheese and pršut (prosciutto) on any platter and sticking with just the oil and bread.

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