A Lunch in Provence: Saou’s L’Oiseau sur sa branche
I owe my lunch at L’Oiseau sur sa branche to Facebook, which helps when I think of how much I paid AT&T for data usage at the end of my trip.
I’d checked in on the train from Lyon to Avignon, and a friend living now in Provence spotted it, and messaged me that we should meet while I was in the neighborhood. She’d heard about Oiseau from foodie friends of her own, so we set out on a weekend expedition, the requisite reservations in hand.
L’Oiseau sur sa branche (it means “the bird on its branch”) sets its tables in the tiny town of Saou, way out in the Provençal countryside. The French visit the area to go tramping through the forest, or climb up a massif for the view. We headed out from Montélimar, and the drive took 45 minutes to an hour. It was late May, and the air was thick with pollen that stained the windshield and shimmering with Provençal heat caught under a blue bowl of sky.
If you continued on, eastward past Saou, you might end up in the Vercors Regional Natural Park — but not by any direct route. You could drive through Saou itself if you weren’t paying attention. But you’re more likely to want to stop because the scene on the terrace outside Oiseau offers a portrait of bucolic life that draws passers-by in: road cyclists in their lycra biking kits topping off at the public fountain, 50-something professionals on Harleys, and backpackers rub elbows with traveling gourmands who’ve come expressly to taste of chef Samuel Paul’s cuisine.
I’m told it’s always crowded — le weekend brings du monde — so you will want a reservation. Inside is half-rustic inn, half-rustic épicerie. The front of house is suffused with that barely managed chaos peculiar to small French establishments, and you can choose to add to it, or not, by demanding prompt, attentive service. Presuming Oiseau was what you came for, it’s better to sit back at your scuffed wooden table and adjust to the rhythms of a three-hour repast. Things will arrive when they arrive.
Nothing on the menu is particularly bon marché: a brioche with foie gras would have set me back $17.25. So you might as well not try to cheap your way through the meal, and agree to the $45 menu of entrée, main course, and dessert. (It’s just difficult, when the delicious hunks of bread show up spiked on a small tined sculpture, not to wonder at how expensive rural authenticity has gotten to be. Just sip quietly at your americano in its ceramic, pestle-shaped cup using the backwards-bent-spoon handle.) Because it’s still France, par Dieu, glasses of wine are as low as $4.
The menu will also likely defeat your high school French, and comes untranslated, unless you’re brave enough to ask the harried help. I had the Filet d’un féra, cuit vapeur, choucroute safrané, more or less a stab in the dark. As it turned out, after traveling from Switzerland to Provence, I’d ordered a steamed filet of Swiss lake fish, with saffron-accented sauerkraut. The féra had the light pinkish color of farm-raised salmon, but was much more firm and tasty, especially in its bed of saffron sauce, in a concentration that came to feel intoxicating.
I could also have had a lamb casserole, crepinette de chevrau (an amalgam of kid goat and spices, wrapped in fat); a top cut of beef, bloody; or lamb tripe, the local specialty. Dessert included choice between orange sorbet, local cheeses, pineapple-almond gratin, and something called “strawberry field forever,” which you may want to try if you like strawberries and the sensation of your eyes rolling back in your head.
Afterward, take a few moments to stroll the streets of Saou, even if a hike upland is beyond you. An absurdly picturesque stream runs through town, flowing under little stone bridges. Tiny metal gates let you walk down to the stream bed. Cobblestones and rock walls preserve a medieval ambiance, as does its sum total of about 500 inhabitants. Above the town looms the Aiguille de la Tour, a tower-like rock pinnacle. As you crane your neck to look up at it, keep in mind that sightseers have been doing that for the past 6,000 years. Then pick up some Picodon cheese for the road.