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If fantasies are about transcending limits, then it's no wonder the la Cornue range is the dream love of so many kitchen fantasists, yours truly among them. Here we have a line of stoves whose cheapest model costs about $17,000, and I do not know what the upper limit is or even if there is an upper limit. Buying a la Cornue is, one supposes, a little bit like buying a Rolls-Royce or a Maybach. The buyer is consulted on all matter of minutiae, including color (a wide palette is offered), and the finished product — assembled by hand by a single worker in France for a certain sort of manufacturing authorship that is increasingly, vanishingly rare in our shabby world of mass production — features a brass plaque emblazoned with the buyer's (or, to be polite, client's) name. The burners are also of brass, a corrosion-resistant alloy long used on seagoing vessels, and this is a real advantage to the working cook, who knows that tides of salty fluids are constantly sloshing and slopping across the top of any range. Do brass burners justify the price? Your kitchen-minded Lotto winner might well say yes; check back with me after I've won.
Recently a neighbor with inside information told me that a la Cornue could be had for just $10,000 or $12,000. He wasn't quite sure of the exact figure, but it was surprisingly less than expected. The range in question was a floor model at Cherin's, the appliance Valhalla at 18th and Valencia. After checking my money clip — $18, in small, unmarked bills — I hurried over to Cherin's, and I did indeed find a la Cornue range on the floor there. The sales rep, moreover, had news even better than I'd hoped. No, they weren't giving the stove away, but it cost a mere $8,000, leaving a deficit (for me) of only $7,982 plus tax. There was, alas, a slight catch: The la Cornue in question was a member of the new la CornuFé line — authentic looking and in stock but not made to quite the same standard. Also, no brass plaque with one's name on it. A worthy but lesser la Cornue, in other words, that owes its existence at least in part to la Cornue's acquisition, in the autumn of 2004 by Aga, the British stovemaker eager to acquire market share. Is this wise, I wonder, or a fantasy?