Olive Varieties

What Does the Future Hold for Pitted Olive Oils?

With more producers taking advantage of advances in milling technology, are pitted oils set to become a more common sight on store shelves or are they destined to remain a niche product?

Annalisa Torzilli at Il Molino
Sep. 11, 2017
By Malcolm Gilmour
Annalisa Torzilli at Il Molino

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Pitted olive oils — oils that have had the stone removed before pro­cess­ing — are noth­ing new; evi­dence sug­gests the early Romans pro­duced them. Despite a long his­tory though, it’s fair to say the prac­tice of remov­ing the pits before milling olives has never really caught on com­mer­cially.

We now pro­duce denoc­ci­o­lati oils every year, and it rep­re­sents the flag­ship prod­uct in our range.- Annalisa Torzilli, Il Molino

With more pro­duc­ers taking advan­tage of advances in milling tech­nol­ogy these days, are pitted oils, known as denoc­ci­o­lati in Italy, set to become a more common sight on store shelves or are they des­tined to remain a niche prod­uct?

One pro­ducer who has been making pitted oils for some time is Annalisa Torzilli of Il Molino, a farm near Viterbo on the Umbria-Lazio border of Italy. Annalisa first got into pitted oils while taking an olive oil som­me­lier course in 2002.

“Since then, I’ve always appre­ci­ated this type of oil, more del­i­cate than con­ven­tion­ally-pro­duced oils,” Torzilli said. She was so impressed that, when the farm installed their own mill in 2003, she also ordered a pit­ting machine. “We now pro­duce denoc­ci­o­lati oils every year, and it rep­re­sents the flag­ship prod­uct in our range which we label with the Tuscia DOP.”

Antonino Mennella of Madonna dell’Olivo, a small estate with around 2,000 trees — a mix of Carpellese, Itrana, Carolea and other vari­eties — near Salerno, is another pro­ducer with a long his­tory of making pitted oils. In his case, it was the leg­endary Italian wine and food critic Luigi Veronelli who encour­aged him. “Veronelli wanted me to par­tic­i­pate in his Olio sec­ondo Veronelli project which encour­aged pro­duc­ers to make monocul­ti­var and denoc­ci­o­lati oils,” explained Antonino.

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Antonino is adamant that in cer­tain respects, pitted oils enjoy an advan­tage over con­ven­tional oils. “Pitted oils have higher levels of polyphe­nols, fewer per­ox­ides and lower acid­ity, find­ings that were con­firmed by chem­i­cal tests car­ried out at my mill,” he said. Like Annalisa, he also draws atten­tion to the more del­i­cate char­ac­ter of these oils, “From a sen­sory per­spec­tive, these are oils with a softer, less pun­gent pro­file.”

The exact prop­er­ties of pitted oils are not uni­ver­sally agreed upon. Alessandro Leone of the University of Foggia’s Department of Science of Agriculture, Food and Environment (SAFE) has con­ducted research into the area.

“Analytical results indi­cate that ston­ing did not affect free acid­ity and per­ox­ide values, but showed higher con­cen­tra­tions of phenol com­pounds,” Alessandro noted. His research con­firmed that the prac­tice can influ­ence an oil’s sen­sory char­ac­ter­is­tics.

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“The ston­ing process mod­i­fied the volatile pro­file by increas­ing the C6 unsat­u­rated alde­hy­des strictly related to the cut-grass sen­sory notes of the oil, increas­ing the sen­sory score com­pared to tra­di­tional oils,” said Alessandro. But even in this area, there is an ele­ment of uncer­tainty. “A well-bal­anced and bitter and pun­gent taste is obtained in stoned oil, although some vari­eties show more promi­nent bitter com­po­nents when the core is removed.”

One expert who is keen for more research is CalAthena con­sul­tant Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne. “I would like to see more exper­i­men­ta­tion with depit­ting. I have tasted some excel­lent and dis­tinc­tive depit­ted oils, and I’d be inter­ested in seeing what the tech­nique yields with more vari­eties.” Devarenne echoes the gen­eral lack of con­sen­sus on the organolep­tic char­ac­ter­is­tics of pitted oils. “It seems like there is more to be learned about the polyphe­nol pro­files that result from depit­ting since the sen­sory results some­times seem con­tra­dic­tory.”

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There are also other com­pli­ca­tions for pro­duc­ers making pitted oils. As you would expect, the addi­tion of machin­ery — typ­i­cally a sep­a­rate pit­ting machine — means a higher cost of pro­duc­tion and, accord­ing to Leone, the pit frag­ments in tra­di­tional oil extrac­tion can actu­ally help the extrac­tion process, break­ing down olive pulp cells and making the sep­a­ra­tion of oil and water easier.

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Torzilli admit­ted that yields tend to be lower than con­ven­tional oils, often by up to 1.5 per­cent in her case. All of which means, of course, higher prices on the shelves. When you hear all of this, it’s per­haps a sur­prise there are any pro­duc­ers making pitted oils at all.

Both Torzilli and Mennella agree that many retail­ers and dis­trib­u­tors have no idea what pitted oils are. Commercially, this makes their higher prices even more of an obsta­cle. Even spe­cial­ist importers can be skep­ti­cal of their value.

Yacine Amor runs the London-based Artisan Olive Oil Company. “We do not stock any depit­ted oils as we do not see a dif­fer­ence in qual­ity to non-pitted oils of sim­i­lar stan­dards,” he said, adding that they have “not gained much trac­tion in the market.”

Torzilli has found a market for her pitted oils among cus­tomers who find them more easily digestible than con­ven­tional oils as well as fruitar­i­ans but admits that it is likely to remain a niche. Mennella is more pos­i­tive, saying he sees a “pos­i­tive future for denoc­ci­o­lati.”

Whatever the future holds com­mer­cially, from a tech­ni­cal point of view, par­tial pit­ting machines may rep­re­sent an impor­tant advance. Alessandro Leone says he has been seeing an increase in pro­duc­ers, espe­cially in Puglia, Italy, adopt­ing this tech­nol­ogy.

Partial pit­ting equip­ment can be set to remove vari­able pro­por­tions of the pit — gen­er­ally around 60 per­cent — leav­ing enough stone frag­ments for the ben­e­fits asso­ci­ated with con­ven­tional extrac­tion to be retained.

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Research car­ried out by Alessandro’s team also showed that mills using this equip­ment did not suffer a notice­able reduc­tion in yield and allowed olive pits to be recov­ered (they can be sold for fuel and other uses).

But it is the sen­sory find­ings from Alessandro’s research which shows why more pro­duc­ers may join the likes of Tirzilli and Mennella in making pitted oils. “The oils obtained were char­ac­ter­ized by more marked green fruiti­ness, flavor and aroma than the oils pro­duced using the tra­di­tional pro­cess­ing sys­tems,” noted Alessandro.