Firstly, the water/bleach thing is completely unnecessary. Wood as it comes from the tree is nearly sterile. In the years I've made maple syrup (not this year, propane was too high in price and the season never really happened), sap from the tree is completely safe to drink as is. No need to sanitize. More harm than good from doing so. If it's deadfall, by the time you're finished, there won't be any chance of dirt or bacteria interfering with anything.
As it comes from the tree, though, you'll need to dry the wood. I'm assuming you found the wood in a "green" state, since you say you peeled the bark off it. The best way is to have a wood sealer/glue on hand when you cut your branch from the tree. When you make your cuts, dip the cut ends into the sealer and let dry this way. This will prevent the possibility of drying "checks," or cracks that run lengthwise along the grain. They're caused by uneven drying. After forgetting about the wood for a few months. Peel the bark and shape as you'd like. You can steam bend wood more easily when it's green, but letting it dry a little while is better for stability.
As a side note, if you really like a cracky or otherwise unsuitable piece of wood for its unique character, you can send it out for stabilization. They impregnate the wood with an epoxy or wood hardener. The result will be a tough, plastic-like material that won't break down for anything. Spalted maple is a beautiful example of this.
When sanding, take the finish up to 320--400 grit, then wet the grain with a little water. You'll find it gets rough again. Sand back up to 400 or so, beginning with 220. This step is important to a quality finish. For the absolute most popping amazing finish, use only scrapers.
As for finish, it's up to you. I would stay away from commercial linseed oil for food grade surfaces, however. The reason is that they usually employ a cobalt dryer (cobalt carbonate), in addition to other nasty additives that make a finish look good and dry fast, but aren't great for you. You can make your own linseed oil finish, if you'd like, by bringing linseed oil to 300 F and holding it there for a while (like an hour or two), repeating a few times. Think of broken-down fryer oil, it's breaking down because its polymerizing. This is what you want. Or you can use Safflower oil treated in the same way. Safflower isn't as bright, but it's a little tougher.
To apply, wipe on liberally with a rag, let set for 30 minutes, and then remove the excess. A solvent like turpentine (plant derived is better, IMO) will help you penetrate deeper. Allow to dry in a warm place with sunlight (sunlight's important to the polymerization of the oil) for 24 hours or more. Lightly sand with 800-1000 grit. Repeat for as long as you can stand it. Two weeks or longer wouldn't be out of place. Tung oil is pretty good, as well, and you can build up a good finish much faster.
If you take a resin like colophony and add it to your linseed oil, along with a solvent like good quality, pine-derived turpentine and you get a varnish. Plenty of recipes out there. Apply this like the oil. Depending on your climate, you can also get away with adding a little beeswax, pine tar, etc. In Canada, I'm particularly fond of a 2 to 2 to 1 to 0.5 mix of linseed oil(2), turpentine(2), beeswax (1-1.5), to venetian turpentine or pine tar (0.5). Test recipes for durability and toughness before using it on anything of value. You can colour your varnish with artist's pigments, but remember that doing so will give you a matte finish. Use a few clear coats over top to get a gloss.
I would stay away from anything shellac based if your wood is to be around water or steam. French polish is lovely, but not very durable. Spray urethane is cheap, tough, and easy to use.